Monday, September 05, 2011

What impact will cyborgs have on government?

"We are all cyborgs now" claims Amber Case in her January 2011 TED Director Talk (see her video below).

The concept of humans as purely biological beings ended long ago, potentially 3,000 years ago, with the first documented prosthetic limb on an Egyptian Mummy.

However the widespread use of mechanical or electronic devices to aid or control certain human physiological processes didn't become commonplace until the last century, when progress in devices such as eye-glasses and contact lenses, prosthetic limbs and even artificial organs really took off.

In 1979 the CDC reported (PDF) that 51% of US adults wore corrective glasses. I could not find any more recent statistics, either for the US or Australia, however I doubt the figure has declined.

Add to this those using prosthetic limbs and orthotics (devices which apply external forces to the body for the purpose of support and alignment, reducing pain or enhancing mobility), hearing aids, dialysis, artificial organs and so on, and I estimate that a majority of the population of developed western countries are cyborgs, of one type or another.

We've long been doing this with mechanical devices - cars, bulletproof vests, jetpacks, binoculars and more. In the future this enhancement might be more firmly integrated into human physiology - glasses and contact lenses containing heads-up displays and power-assisted prosthetic limbs are already in use in prototype forms.

We've also been busy enhancing our mental and conversational powers, as Amber also discusses. Most adults in Australia carry an external memory and communication device with them most of the time - a mobile phone - that allows them to instantly connect and communicate with people around the world, store information and receive alerts when required or research in a global library for facts or views that they no longer store in 'meat' memory.

In this arena we've begun to see devices for direct control of external devices via mechanical telepathy - with products already in the market.

Thus far cyborgs have generally used devices to attempt to match the biological human norm, to see, hear, move and live as closely as possible to unenhanced humans.

However we are increasingly heading towards a world that will see more widespread use of devices to enhance our capabilities. Moving from breast implants to heads-up displays, nightvision, hearing amplifiers and devices that otherwise increase our versatility, physical strength, speed, precision or stamina. An early example is Aimee Mullins, a double leg amputee who has turned her legs into art and can change her height, speed and capabilities through her selection of prosthetic limbs (see the video below).

Another example is 'Eyeborg', Rob Spence, who lost an eye and replaced it with a wifi camera. Rob has now made a short documentary, in conjunction with the new game 'Deus Ex: Human Revolution' (which features a cyborg hero) asking the question of where human augmentation may lead (video below).

At some point, as highlighted in Rob's video, we may even begin to face the ethical question of people choosing to be enhanced to increase their capabilities. This could involve medical interventions, even limb replacement.

So where does this impact on government and the process of governing?

Government policies, legislation and enforcement mechanisms have been designed for people who fit a particular range of capabilities and characteristics.

If cybernetic enhancements expand an individual's capabilities outside of this range, some laws may struggle to address the needs or issues this may bring.

We've seen the same challenges as other technologies were introduced. Some technologies had no impact on our legal framework, others have forced us to rethink entire policies.

Human augmentation technology is likely to be similar. For example, someone with camera eyes - who can record everything they see - might inadvertently record inappropriate material, or film in restricted venues. Someone with a brain enhanced with a direct wi-fi connection to the internet may use that collective knowledge in closed examinations or any type of competitive challenge or job where access to knowledge provides advantage. Someone with enhanced leg or arm strength may have an advantage in any type of competitive or commercial activity involving bodily strength, speed or stamina.

As a society we will have to debate issues such as,
  • should augmented humans be allowed to compete for the same jobs, sports or competitions as unaugmented humans?
  • should we create new approaches, policies or laws to govern individuals who can run faster, jump higher, grip harder or think faster than 'normal' humans?
  • at what level of augmentation would any changes kick in. With an artificial retina (with a heads-up display), with power-assisted limbs, with a direct neural interface to the internet?
Fortunately we still have time to consider these questions and there's likely to be opportunities to adapt our governance approaches.

However with the growing number and acceptance of cyborgs and the rate at which technology is advancing, we may not have that much time to reflect.

Note: Excluding the use of an external memory enhancement and communication tool, I don't yet qualify as a cyborg.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting example is Oscar Pistorius (, a double amputee who is fast enough to compete against able-bodied opponents and the controversy over whether his artificial legs give him an advantage (and so whether he is allowed to compete).