Cyborgs in the making?

Yesterday our younger son asked why science fiction so often portrays problems that arise from a mix of the biological with the mechanical. We had an interesting conversation about real-life instances of machines embedded in people’s bodies, such as mechanical heart valves and cochlear implants. Such devices clearly improve a person’s quality of life without raising concerns that machines could be taking over.

Science fiction, of course, is always looking at what could happen in the future based on current trends. Might we someday have implants that challenge our ability to distinguish between person and machine? Or that make the distinction meaningless?

Science fiction likes to portray consciousness as emerging automatically when a system reaches a certain level of complexity. It makes for some interesting stories, and particularly some interesting moral dilemmas, as human try to figure out whether conscious intelligence constitutes personhood.

I don’t know whether technology will ever get to the point that we have to decide such things. But the technology to enhance the human brain in ways that create new ethical issues may not be that far off. An essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal describes the current use of brain implants and how they may develop within this century.

Might there come a time when choosing not to have certain implants placed in your child’s skull will cause the same kind of ethical and legal issues as we have today with the decision whether or not to give vaccinations? What would be the nature of athletic competitions if technologically-enhanced abilities become the norm? (And how different is that from today’s competitions where technology doping has become an issue?)

As the authors of the essay point out, these technological advances are coming whether we like them or not. Because some people do want them, and will pay for them, and others will happily benefit from them once they are widely available.

They won’t change the fundamental nature of human life or human relationships. Pride, envy, greed, and selfishness will still be at the root of our worst problems, not the technology that facilitates both our good and bad behaviors.

But we’ll have to tackle some very challenging questions as we work out the moral issues raised by new technologies. Technologies that develop, of course, faster than our ability to answer those questions.

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