Life as an Extreme Sport

Robo Sapien (Discovery Channel)

The Discovery tagline is “The merging of man and machine: science fiction or science fact? Witness the birth of a new species!” I figure, okay, this should be interesting (and regret not knowing about it in time to tell Summer or Linda about it, since I suspect they might have found it interesting, given the recent fMRI debate at AMBI).

Being me, I’m thinking a lot about notions of consent and experimentation on people (with lots of breaks to stop and squeal and try to photograph the raccoons on my patio – what can I say, I’m easily distracted by cute). In the first cyborg study this show is talking about, they realize that a man is not in a coma, but locked inside a completely paralized body. They hook electrodes into his brain, and he slowly learns to communicate via cursor and keyboard that he controls with his brain (something we’ve all heard of at this point). And of course, our immediate reaction is that this is fabulous; none of us can contemplate the horror of being locked inside a paralized body and think “oh, that’s for me!” So freeing someone, even in a limited manner that a cursor across a keyboard would allow, seems like a good idea. But I have to wonder about the idea of experimenting on the very vulnerable: on the one hand, who else do we experiment on for technology like this? But on the other hand, this is a small population of people and families who’re desperate for anything that will help, and will say yes to anything on the hope and prayer that it will make the situation better. They’re exceedingly vulnerable, and it seems like it would be easy to take advantage of that to pursue science. What kind of precautions and committees are in place to make sure that this taking advantage isn’t happening?

Well, no – even beyond that. Can you set up a committee or an IRB that can make sure there isn’t a taking advantage of going on? I’m not sure that’s possible. It might simply be in the nature of the research that, if it is to happen, it will involve taking advantage of the vulnerable.

One of the next stories covered on this show is about a man whose spine was severred in a fight; Cyberkinetics did a 12 month study with their “Braingate” technology – implanting electrodes into a subjects brain, with basically a socket that you could plug a computer into. They wanted to spend a year trying to get Matthew to use a cursor to control a screen, television remote, computer, and etc – and within three days he managed to do so. They would plug the computer in and he described feeling free, being able to do things for himself, from reading and answering email to watching TV and channel flipping without needing someone else around to help.

While the above concerns about vulnerability are still in play, Matthew at least was not fully locked in his body and could consent. He did, the experiment happens – and a year later, it ends, and they remove the electrodes and ability to plug in to the computer, despite thet fact that it was a resounding success and he gained a lot of freedom. Why it was removed wasn’t specified, but my guess is that was part of the FDA-approved trial guidelines. And we, or at least I, have to wonder if this is right? Can we, should we, give someone this ability, which must be wonderful, and then take it away saying “sorry, we know it worked wonders for you, but we can’t let you keep it”? This seems wrong, to offer a treatment, to give hope, and then say “sorry, terribly sorry, but…” Regardless of what you say at the outset of the trial, regardless of whether or not you tell them upfront that the technology will need to be removed, knowing something at the abstract level versus how you feel about it after a year of the experience is going to be different. How do you give someone an enhanced quality of life, and then justify taking it away? I don’t think you can.

One of my favourite things to hear was a doctor talking about augmentation, saying that a top tennis player will tell you that the racket has become an extension of their arm – it is part of them, and so far as the brain is concerned, it simply is their arm. This dovetails beautifully with posthuman theory, and of course leaves me wistful for CHID, and sitting around discussing the cyborg. A few pokes around Google, and I found a couple of interesting links:
Cybofree – Cyborgs, Fantasy, Reality, Ethics and Education
Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective
…and discovered that Dante coined the term “transhumanize” in The Divine Comedy way back in the late 1200s. Neat, eh? Now granted, how we use the term transhuman today doesn’t precisely map onto Dante’s terminology; he was certainly thinking much more in a philosophical sense while we use it to almost singularly refer to the cyborg and the posthuman, changes to the actual flesh, but I think we could borrow from contemporary phenomenology and argue that to change the body is to change the philosophy. And besides, the bottom line is the same: something greater than the normative human condition.