It's a well-known fact that technology can improve our lives. For example, we can reach anyone and anywhere with our cellphones. And people who can't walk after an accident now can have smart prosthesis to help them. But what about designing our children on a computer or having a chip inside our brain to answer our email messages? Are we ready for such a future? In "Robo-quandary," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that many researchers are working on the subject. And as a professor of neuroscience said, "We can grow neurons on silicone plates; we can make the blind see; the deaf hear; we can read minds." So will all we become cyborgs one day?
Even if the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is quoting many researchers, I'll focus here on the research interests of Keith Bauer, an assistant professor at the Marquette University Philosophy Department. He works on "transhumanism, which addresses arguments for and against the unrestricted modification of humans by means of genetic manipulation, bio-implants and nanotechnology."
Here are some comments about his research from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.
Bauer describes how electrodes inserted into the brain help patients regain functions lost to strokes and spinal cord injuries. About 200 Americans so far have had the VeriChip, a microchip the size of a grain of rice, implanted in their arms, where it stores medical information that can be retrieved and viewed by a doctor with the sweep of a scanner the size of a calculator.
Other implantable devices can monitor the heart, passing information from the patient at home to the doctor in the hospital. Artificial hearts extend the lives of the dying. So-called bionic limbs replace those lost through war or accident.
Such technologies raise possibilities that go beyond medical need and into the realm of human enhancement. Enhancement, Bauer writes, "brings to mind sci-fi images of cyborgs with superior physical and mental powers. But we don't have to imagine some possible future to see how human function can be enhanced with microchips and biosensors."
Bauer's research has been published in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics under the name "Wired Patients: Implantable Microchips and Biosensors in Patient Care" (Volume 16, Issue 03, Pages 281-290, July 2007). Here is a link to the abstract. Below is the beginning of this document.
After decades of specialization within the sciences, the development and application of implantable microchips and biosensors are now being made possible by a growing convergence among seemingly disparate scientific disciplines including, among others, biology, informatics, chemistry, and engineering. This convergence of diverse scientific disciplines is the basis for the creation of new technologies that will have significant medical potential.
Incidentally, Bauer presented a paper with the exact same name at the Eighth Annual Ethics & Technology Conference held at St. Louis University on June 24-25, 2005.
Finally, I want to add a quote from Robyn S. Shapiro, director of the Center for the Study of Bioethics at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "Almost always, new developments evoke horror and fear and gradually acceptance. We saw that with in vitro fertilization and organ transplantation," she said. "This is a little bit different. This is really tinkering with the basic building blocks of who we are." Such changes, she adds, raise the specter of eugenics, the discredited notion of improving the human race by restricting reproduction to only those people with traits deemed "desirable."
It sure makes you think about our future...
Sources: Mark Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 8, 2007; and various websites
You'll find related stories by following the links below.