Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Cybernetics and Ethics

Cyborgs have appeared across science fiction: The Six Million Dollar Man; The Borg; and Darth Vader but to name a few. They vary from the oddly comic Cybermen to the crime-fighting hero Robocop¹.

In the last decade cybernetic organisms, once confined to the imaginings of authors, have begun to appear across the world. At 4.00PM on Monday, 24th August, 1998 Professor Kevin Warwick underwent surgery to become the World’s first cyborg.

Prof Warwick’s implant, a small glass capsule full of electronics or "transponder", allowed the buildings in his department at the University of Reading to recognise his presence, opening doors and turning on lights automatically.
The Transponder (Ref.)
Kevin Warwick did not stop there;

In 2002 an electrode was fired into a nerve in Prof Warwick’s left arm. The implant allowed nerve impulses to be measured and stimulation to be applied directly to the nerve, this meant Prof Warwick could control a robotic hand, and his wife could “feel” stimulation sent from him to a similar implant in her nervous system [1,2]. The experiment was lambasted at the time as “a gimmick”, especially related to Kevin Warwick’s claim that the research could help paraplegics regain limb movement.
Design of an electrode similar to that used by Prof. Warwick. [3]
Is this an “evil, mad scientist” turning themselves into Superman? Self experimentation is not uncommon among researchers has lead to some of the World’s greatest scientific advancements, and won one scientist a Nobel Prize. But Kevin Warwick has mentioned, in an interview with the Guardian, that he had been “into” the possibility of cyborgs since childhood, should we be indulging this childish whim?

In this case the only people’s safety at stake were Prof Warwick, and his wife [4]*; however the series of experiments were very costly, without the efficiencies of mass production and the man-hours required for pioneering surgery. The time of the two top neurosurgeons involved could have been well spent elsewhere, treating patients rather than fulfilling Kevin Warwick’s personal whim.

Despite this we must consider the avenues of treatment this research has opened up. Thought control over prosthetics has been successful. Just imagine how much more intuitive and accurate that process could be made if implanted electrodes were used. Professor Warwick’s work may end up improving the quality of life of countless disabled humans and animals. Two hours in a surgery and a relatively minute sum are certainly a small price to pay for improving lives.

In early 2010 research similar to Prof Warwick’s led to the development of prosthetic limbs which have allowed a 21 year old Austrian to drive. The patient, a Mr Kandlbauer, was very happy with his limb and described it feeling like “a part of my body.” Sadly, in the October following his surgery, Mr Kandlbauer died in a fatal car crash. Although it is unknown whether this is related to his prosthetic there is always the ethical issue that this construes a breaking of Issac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics:
"A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."
These laws are not built into robots in the real world, and, as we are all aware, technology can break down when we least expect it. If it is found that Mr Kandlbauer’s death was caused by a failure of his prosthetic, this may have significant implications for the future of prosthetics and the apportioning of blame when technology is involved in an accident.

Finally, here's a short advertorial for Deus Ex: Human Revolution by Rob Spence, aka. "The Eyeborg".

¹Robocop is also oddly comic.
*I should note that no lasting damage to Dr Warwick’s nervous function was observed during or after the experiments.

[1] M. Gasson, B. Hutt, I. Goodhew, P. Kyberd, and K. Warwick, “Invasive neural prosthesis for neural signal detection and nerve stimulation,” International journal of adaptive control and signal processing, vol. 19, no. 5, pp. 365-375, 2004.
[2] K. Warwick  M. Gasson, B. Hutt, I. Goodhew, P. Kyberd, B. Andrews, P. Teddy, and A. Shad, “The Application of Implant Technology for Cybernetic Systems,” Arch Neurol, vol. 60, no. 10, pp. 1369-1373, 2003.
[3] By Richard A. Normann (US Patent #5,215,088) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
[4] J.H. Schulman, “Brain Control and Sensing of Artificial Limbs,” in
Implantable Neural Prostheses 1: Devices and Applications, 1st ed., vol. 1, 2 vols., New York, USA: Springer, 2009, pp. 275-291. On Google Books.

I wrote this post about a year ago, but submitted a very similar version as coursework. To avoid self-plagiarisation I refrained from publishing at the time.

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