More than human? – ‘I, Cyborg’ (Warwick, 2002)

October 30, 2007

Kevin Warwick’s 2002 book I, Cyborg opens with the line “this book is all about me” (pg. vii). For the reader, this appears true in at least two senses. Firstly, its pages detail Warwick’s journey to become professor of cybernetics at Reading University, and explore the origins, ambitions and actualisation of his drive “to become a cyborg” (pg. 1). Secondly, it can also be read as an expression of his belief that science, in this case robotics, should be made accessible to the public “in a straightforward way” (pg. 189) – a sentiment that has led some to accuse him of deliberately courting media attention (see, for example, this article in Wired magazine published in 2000).

I, Cyborg cover photo

While Warwick does address various bioethical issues implicit within his projects (most notably in terms of applying for ethics committee approval for experimental procedures, as on page 156, for example), I, Cyborg‘s primary bioethical utility is as an opportunity to examine in detail how one of the key scientific figures in the area of human-machine interaction sees the future of this technology. Is its use to “upgrade the human form” (pg. 1) a morally legitimate goal; or should cyborg technology be used only in the treatment of disease and disability?

In both bioethics and philosophy of medicine these two uses correspond to the distinction between ‘therapy’ and ‘enhancement’. In I, Cyborg, Warwick does effectively make a distinction of this kind, particularly when distinguishing between his own “projects on two fronts” (pg. 40). However, in Chapter 8, where he catalogues some of the research that informed his second cyborg experiment, the ambiguity implicit in the therapy/enhancement distinction is exposed (this is discussed at length in the accompanying BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that will shortly appear here).

However, where bioethical debates have centred on the use and validity of the therapy/enhancement distinction as a way to describe a moral boundary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ research and intervention (for example, where breast reconstruction following mastectomy might be viewed as intrinsically ‘good’, breast enhancement for cosmetic purposes might be more morally questionable), this is largely neglected in Warwick’s book. It may be his ‘post-‘ or ‘trans-humanist’ orientation to the ethics of enhancement that is responsible for this, though it also provides for a different perspective on this issue.

In this way, I, Cyborg provides a rich source of provocative quotes on the ethics and implications of the technological enhancement of humans. These would form a suitable basis for any discussion of this issue. Some key quotes include:

  • “humans will be able to evolve by harnessing the super-intelligence and extra abilities offered by the machines of the future, by joining with them. All this points to the development of a new human species, known in the science-fiction world as ‘cyborgs’.” (pg. 4)
  • “it doesn’t mean that everyone has to become a cyborg. If you are happy with your state as a human then so be it, you can remain as you are. But be warned – just as we humans split from our chimpanzee cousins years ago, so cyborgs will split from humans. Those who remain as humans are likely to become a sub-species. They will, effectively, be the chimpanzees of the future.” (pg. 4)
  • “My own definition of a cyborg is something that is part-animal, part-machine, and whose capabilities are extended beyond normal limits. … it allows for metal upgrades as well as physical upgrades and allows the extension to go beyond the normal limits of either the animal or the machine.” (pg. 61)
  • “As a result of the experiment, I received several communications from companies, government bodies, military and police forces about … what it might mean for the future. Would we as a society want implants like this to be generally available? Who would control the situation? The technology was now available, so such questions had to be raised, rather than just discussed as a mere futuristic concept that might never happen.” (pg. 89)

Finally, in Chapter 17 of I, Cyborg Warwick speculates on what a future populated by (superior) cyborgs and (inferior) humans might look like. What he describes is a global, networked society with deep divisions and huge potential for exploitation, discrimination and abuse. While this might also be said of our contemporary society, Warwick’s vision suggests that in the future the lines of division might be drawn in very different places and with different effects. Though the darker aspects of this chapter resonate with the sentiments of another of Warwick’s popular science books In the Mind of the Machine (1997), and also reflect their author’s provocative style, this epilogue does raise an important question. As Warwick himself suggests: “this really is the crux of the whole moral and ethical dilemma. Using implants to help a person with a disability is one thing, but using them to upgrade a perfectly healthy individual is something else” (pg. 293). For posthumanists, as Warwick appears to be, the “ultimate upgrade” (The Rise of the Cybermen, Doctor Who series 2, 2006. [TV]. BBC1, 13th May 2006. time in: 00:24:15) is something to be desired. However, for the rest of us, is Warwick’s future one we really want to inhabit?

I, Cyborg was written by Kevin Warwick, and published in the UK in 2002 by Century, London. ISBN: 0712669884.

The vivisection debate: Animals (More4)

October 16, 2007

Part of a season of programmes about aspects of animal use in research, this drama/documentary was first broadcast in December 2005. In the fictional story we are introduced to a research scientist involved in animal testing and to an animal rights activist intent on stop him.  The narrative develops from about 1997, when a TV documentary exposed genuine mistreatment of some animals at Britain’s largest animal research facility, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), see 00:16:07 – 00:17:31. Throughout the programme, Animals examines real life actions taken by animal rights activists and incorporates them in the plot of the story. A series of interviews with people who were directly involved in these events is also interspersed, and provides interesting insights into their personal experiences. Read the rest of this entry »

Animal Research – Monkeys, Rats and Me

October 8, 2007

In the spring of 2004, work started on the new Oxford University Biomedical research laboratory, which would be partially used for animal experimentation. From the very first day of construction, the site was bombarded with verbal abuse and relentless physical damage to machinery, offices and supplies by animal rights protestors. This subsequently forced the building work to be halted for 18 months. Monkeys, Rats and Me, a documentary commissioned by the BBC, joins the story when construction is restarted in November 2005, and follows the activities of those who campaign for and against the use of animals in medical experimentations. The site of the new facility had become the epicentre for a grand battle between the two polar views of experiments on animals. On the one side you have those who wish for total abolishment of vivisection and on the other there are those who see animal experimentation as an essential tool for advancing science and developing new cures. The narrator suggests that this dispute revolves around the central ethical question of whether “the benefits to patients justify the harms to the animals”. To address this, the documentary attempts to see if animal experimentation works and even, if it does, “is it ethical?” Read the rest of this entry »

Making tricky decisions – Inside the ethics committee

October 5, 2007

If you were on the ethics committee that had to decide whether or not an anorexic woman can refuse further treatment for her condition and admit herself instead into a palliative care hospital to await death – how would you decide what to allow?  This is just one of the scenarios discussed in the third series of the Radio 4 series Inside the ethics committee. The programme has an interesting format – all the cases considered are real, and the panel of experts are all members of a clinical ethics committee, usually at a different UK hospital. Host Vivienne Parry interrogates them about the advice they would have given on the specific case and the reasons underlying that view.  Finally, the real decision made by the ethics committee is revealed.

The three series to date have covered some interesting ground.

Series 1 (2005) looked at:
treating a Jehovah’s witness with leukaemia who will need blood-products or an expensive alternative
whether a baby should be given a liver transplant which will be damaged by the treatment they are getting and will therefore only be a temporary solution, when several other patients could have the organ instead
deciding what to do for a patient with a chronic lung condition who gave inconsistent views about whether or not he wants life-saving treatment

Series 2 (2006) covered:
whether it is right to test children for an inheritable cancer now that their father has developed the condition
ethical decisions that would need to be made in the face of a pandemic flu outbreak
how to decide whether or not someone gets an expensive medicine on the NHS

Series 3 (2007) was perhaps the most engaging to date. Topics considered this year were:
deciding how to treat a man who has learning difficulties, no speech and no relatives but needs chemotherapy
can a woman with Anorexia Nervosa be offered palliative care?
can an unconscious man be tested for HIV without his consent?

In the most recent of these cases, for example, a man caught in the London bombings of July 2005 had been very badly injured, including exposure to blood and tissue from other victims.  Unconscious in hospital, a doctor treating him accidentally pricks herself with a used needle.  She starts a programme of prophylactic medicine, which would normally continue until it was known whether the original patient was HIV positive and may have infected her.  In this case, the man cannot be asked for permission for him to be tested.  With the healthcare worker now effectively a second patient, how do you resolve the apparent clash of rights and needs for the two individuals?

Inevitably for programmes of this kind, the cases are specifically selected because the decisions are not straightforward – it doesn’t make for good radio if your panelists are always agreeing!  Given the complexity of the cases involved, I suspect that the use in teaching would be limited to University level, and even then it is more suited to philosophy courses or medicine than for bioscientists.  It’s not easy to pick out short soundbites, and I would recommend listening to the full 45 minute episodes in each case.

At the time of writing, all nine episodes are available as streamed files on the BBC website (although the links didn’t always seem to work on all the computers I tried). In addition to the recording, there is also a transcript of each discussion, which can be very helpful in following the arguments being made. Alternatively, audio recordings can be obtained from the BUFVC.

‘Give us your DNA’ – Panorama

October 2, 2007

“Isn’t it about time we put the whole country’s DNA on the database once and for all?” This is the central question posed in Give us your DNA, an episode of the BBC documentary Panorama. Since its creation in 1995, the Police National DNA Database (NDNAD) has provided the police with an exceptionally powerful tool to detect and prevent crime in the UK. However in both its creation and implementation the database has generated numerous contentious ethical issues such as infringement of civil liberties. With the assistance of personal accounts and expert commentary, this programme examined whether there is a strong argument in favour of putting every UK citizen onto NDNAD. Read the rest of this entry »