“The ultimate upgrade” – Doctor Who & the Cybermen (parts 1 & 2)

September 20, 2007

In a two part episode concerning the Doctor’s encounter with the Cybermen, The Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel rehearse a number of important bioethical issues regarding the feasibility and acceptability of “the ultimate upgrade” (00:24:15) – that is, the downloading and/or replicating of characteristics and functions of the human brain into a machine.

John Lumick (The Rise of the Cybermen. BBC, 2006)

In brief, The Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel concern the efforts of John Lumick – a dying cybernetics genius in a parallel world – to prolong his life by downloading or replicating his conciousness in a mechanical body. This is described in terms of “a brain welded to an exoskeleton” (00:00:20). However, Lumick sees the cybermen project as, not only, his way to circumvent the wheelchair we see him in and his immanent death, but also, as the future of the human species – what he refers to as “our greatest step into cyberspace” (00:24:56). In order to secure this future Lumick unleashes the Cybermen on human society where they go about suggesting that “upgrading is compulsory” (00:41:53) and that humans “are inferior and will be reborn as Cybermen” (00:45:01).

The Cybermen (The Rise of the Cybermen. BBC, 2006)

As the story progresses the slippage and ambiguity in the terms ‘treatment’ and ‘enhancement’ becomes obvious. In The Age of Steel it is noted that “this all started out as a way of prolonging life” (00:07:21), though that the project has now become one which “takes the living and turns them into…machines” (00:04:30). Though this issue of mechanical enhancement of humans, including their effective replacement by super – or post – human cyborgs, is presented negatively in the action and dialogue that ensues, these episodes of Doctor Who do acknowledge the view that this type of extreme augmentation can be seen as the next step up on the evolutionary ladder. Indeed the Cybermen are referred to as a new species and describe themselves “human point two” (The Rise of the Cybermen: 00:41:51).

While both episodes are interesting, though provoking and exciting, it is The Rise of the Cybermen, that provides the best opportunity to explore and elaborate current themes in the bioethics of enhancement, including:

  • the distinction between treatment and enhancement of human beings by mechanical means
  • the boundary and difference between humans and machines
  • the idea and practical use of a hierarchy of ethical values in society
  • and, the interaction between science and regulatory and political structures in technological decision-making

These issues are explored in detail in the BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that will shortly be available to accompany this post.

The Rise of the Cybermen was first broadcast on BBC1 on May 13th 2006 at 19.00 (TRILT identifier: 0059521F), followed by The Age of Steel on BBC1 on May 20th 2006 at 18.35 (TRILT identifier: 00597007).

Cybernetics – The Farm Revealed (1)

June 12, 2007

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.