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.