Cybernetics – The Farm Revealed (1)

There are a number of things about this programme that irritate me (but also some features that are worthy of note!)  Firstly, the title of the series is more than a little misleading, and the confusion is compounded by the fact that Channel 4 transmitted the episodes in a different order relative to the pre-publicity (and thus the presenter Rufus Hound started this ‘first’ episode by referring back to the previous episodes on genetic modification and manipulation!)  Added to this, the presentation style seemed terribly like ‘yoof TV’ of a bygone age. 

The title The Farm Revealed has been chosen to tie-in with another recent Channel 4 series Animal Farm; some of the footage (and incidental music) is common to both programmes .  This episode (originally scheduled for 15th June 2007, but actually transmitted on 11th June) doesn’t really have any connection to farming, ancient or modern.  The focus instead is on the current and future use of cybernetics and prosthetics. 

We are introduced initially to Richard Whitehead and Richard Hirons; the former is a marathon runner who has no legs and therefore uses sophisticated carbon-fibre replacements, the latter an engineer who develops these kinds of aids.  They were then joined by Marc Woods, another client of Dr Hirons, who demonstrated a complex artificial leg which respond to changes in gradient and allows him to participate in mountain climbing.

Moving on from artificial limbs, the programme then started to consider ways in which brain activity alone can be used to control a remote robot. The demonstration did not go entirely as planned, but was sufficiently impressive to show that there are very real developments going on in this area.

Possibly the most interesting section, from a bioethical point of view, starts 11 minutes into the programme and features Prof Kevin Warwick from the University of Reading. He stands in a long tradition of medical researchers who use themselves as their own guinea pig. At different stages of his research, Kevin has had a Radio Frequency Identification Device inserted into his arm (to investigate the security possibilities of such technology) and also ‘mainframed’ his nervous system, connecting a two-way electronic signalling system from his brain to the internet via electrodes in his arm.  There is some impressive footage of the experiments (starting 17 minutes into the programme). We see Prof Warwick control a series of household tasks chosen from an onscreen menu simply by closing and opening his left hand.  He is also able to control a wheelchair and,  most sensationally, used thought alone to guide the movements of a robotic hand back in his home lab at Reading whilst he himself was in New York.  Sensors in the fingers of the disembodied hand fed back information to him about how tight his grip was. 

I have heard Prof Warwick speaking about this type of cybernetics on a previous occasion, and am pleased therefore that this programme offers the opportunity to obtain and use the same footage of experiments that he had referred to in his lecture.  From an ethical standpoint, it raises interesting questions about the application of developments of this kind.  Therapeutic uses, such as providing sonar abilities to aid blind people avoid obstacles, or ways to control artificial limbs for amputees, are clear medical applications which, on the face of it, would not seems unreasonable.  Yet there are potentially more sinister ways to employ the same technology, such as pilotless warplanes and other military uses.  Indeed, Prof Warwick himself is the first to acknowledge that it is very difficult to draw a boundary between a therapeutic use for one person and an enhancement for somebody else. 

How the outworkings of new technologies are regulated is an old, but crucial, question.  Do you ban ‘good’ uses for fear about the misuse of the same procedures by somebody else?  Do you take an ‘anything goes’ approach because you cannot arbitrate between uses?  Or do you try and find some way to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable applications?  No easy answers, of course, but I think that some measure of regulation is always going to be necessary.  The possibility that some maverick somewhere else may misuse innovations made initially for good reasons, cannot be used to fuel an abdication  of responsibility.

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