The vast majority of medical interventions involve popping a pill or cutting away part of the body that has gone wrong. But we’re rapidly approaching the stage when that will no longer be necessary or desirable. Soon, we might be able to replace bits of ourselves with computerized components, correcting any deficit.
Cyborgs – half-human, half-robot entities – have long been a part of science fiction. But now they are becoming reality, they raise interesting questions.
At what point, for instance, does a person stop being a human and become a machine when you replace various body parts with mechanical alternatives?
What happens to the soul if you start replacing bits of the brain?
Should replacements be better than their biological counterparts?
Should healthy people become cyborgs? Is it moral to deny them tools that could enhance their bodies and allow them to live better lives? What about the poor?
The truth is that thanks to pacemakers and cochlear implants, we already have machine-human hybrids walking around. These people depend on their electronic appendages to live a regular life. Without them, they’d struggle.
In the future, though, it may become cheaper and easier to include other cyborg changes to the body. We could see people replacing their natural arms and legs with false limbs. Or people could swap out defective organs, like the liver, for biomechanically engineered systems that do the same job but without getting sick.
The Challenges Of Cyborgization
At first, we’re likely to see removable cyborg extensions – think hearing aids.
These extensions will attach to our bodies, augmenting them in some way. But we will be free to take them off when we don’t want to use them anymore. It’ll be like plugging a smartphone into your naval, and then whipping it out at night when you’ve finished using social media.
We could, for instance, see the widespread development of exoskeletons. These would help people with mobility issues generate extra strength when lifting or walking. It could also make it possible for paraplegics to stand up and transport themselves via neural interfaces.
The next stage is for cybernetics to make lasting but not irreversible changes to the human body. So, for instance, we could see the soldiers implanted with devices that turn off parts of the brain that control empathy.
We could also see the implementation of circuits under the skin that allows people to control muscles remotely when their nervous system is damaged somehow.
Of course, in the extreme, people will make irreversible changes to their bodies. Cybernetics will become an extreme form of tattooing, with people making regular alterations to improve themselves somehow.
Immediately, the cosmetic surgery industry comes to mind. People who get treatment are usually never satisfied with the way that they look and want more and more. The same could happen when people dabble in cybernetic technology. No amount of modification of the body might be enough. After all, that sounds very much like human nature, doesn’t it?
Eventually, technology will progress to the point when cyborg implants are significantly better than their biological counterparts. And that’s when the real ethical questions will emerge.
As technology improves, it will be possible for people to improve their capabilities by discarding their existing tissue and embracing better, robotic components. Eventually, we could get to the stage where a person replaces practically everything that makes them who they are. Immortal beings made of silicon could wander among us.
There would be massive advantages to being a cyborg, for instance. You could modify the ear so that you could hear conversations down the street. Or you could improve the acuity of the eye, allowing you to see a car registration plate from a mile away.
These superhuman abilities will seem scary to start. But patients might be the first to benefit.
If, for instance, you have hearing loss, surgeons might recommend that you get an implant that improves your hearing using state-of-the-art technology. What’s more, manufacturers would have an incentive to make these devices as good as possible, including better than existing human ears. They might be better at detecting high-pitch noises or the direction of incoming sounds.
Wealthy people might be able to use nanotechnology to enhance things like strength and endurance. Already, researchers are figuring out how to improve the body’s ability to transport oxygen. Eventually, it might be possible to engineer red blood cells in a way that allows somebody to sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for a couple of hours without taking a breath.
Cybernetics are coming. It’s just a question of whether you want them.