Ruth Lewis a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects cyber-humans’ liberty in her new blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Can we judge technologies to be helpful in promoting our personal liberty? Could they grant us physical or cognitive freedom to push the boundaries beyond our human limitations? Or may they actually undermine our liberty by inviting unwanted invasions on our privacy and coercion of our thoughts? What happens if the technology that we are considering is embedded within the body or the brain, effectively becoming part of our own bodies?
Wonderful advancements are currently occurring in the field of biomedical engineering, enabling people who suffer severe pain, limb loss, brain injury, neurological diseases or psychological conditions to be monitored and their conditions therapeutically managed. Symptoms of your bodily condition can be tracked through local or remote monitoring of sensors implanted within the body. With electrical stimulation applied automatically or manually as required. In today’s world these implants, called neuroprostheses, may save your life, or make life tolerable. These devices enhance the freedom of action of people who have limited or no mobility, giving them the possibility of aspiring toward an independent life.
Such current technologies are the basis for speculation about an evolution toward ‘cyber-humans’, when body and brain enhancement with intelligent implanted technology may be commonly available. This may be for therapeutic purposes, or to enhance and extend the brains’ cognitive or memory capacity. It may grant extraordinary abilities to see, hear, understand and communicate (even without voice). Enhancement may provide physical strength and endurance well beyond the means of a normal human being. The application for such devices, will grant the freedom of extra-human capabilities. When used for the greater good, they may overcome many help societal issues. However, with speculation, it is possible to imagine a number of future scenarios where the personal liberty of the individual with technologically intelligent implants may be challenged.
Imagine that you receive subliminal or overt messages into your brain implant that induce you to like or buy a new product, to influence you to behave a certain way or suggestions that may be against your natural inclination. This is not so far removed from current practices of media bombardment through broadcast or pop-up advertising, or even practices of ‘brainwashing’. With clever messaging, these inducements may be indistinguishable from your own ‘true’ thoughts. This manipulation of the mind may undermine your cognitive liberty to your own opinion, or against your ability to explore alternative points of view.
In another scenario, your implant may receive subliminal instructions to activate your limbs, causing your body to perform actions that were not of your own choosing. Would you be able to distinguish these actions as being incited from outside of your body? Would you be held accountable or even liable for your body’s actions if you were to perform a criminal action, when the instructions may have come from a foreign source? And how could you prove your innocence in such a circumstance, to prove no motivation, even if you had the physical means to harm other people or property?
In a third scenario, imagine that brain implants may provide significant uplifts in standard human capabilities, such as intelligence, memory, attractiveness or even inter-implant communication. Would you create a class of ‘sub-capable’ natural-form humans compared with the implant-enhanced? Would this mean that you should have the freedom or the right to be implant-modified, or alternatively to refuse modification, even if it meant that you may become part of the sub-class of ‘purely biological’ beings? And finally, after modification, would you have the right to turn off or even remove your cyber-modification, at a time or place of your choosing?
Technology itself cannot judge what is open or honest, what values are good and what are bad. These values must be defined within the ethics frameworks of the society that we live in, and then encoded within the rules of the technology. Our governance frameworks must above all anticipate and protect our established rights to liberty and self-determination, protect our privacy of thought and independence of deed, rather than recognise these factors afterwards.
Technology is to data what the human body is to the blood. Data and information exchange provide the lifeblood of the scenarios described above. In order to understand and analyse these scenarios, we need to understand how liberty will be affected by ownership rights to the data supplied to or extracted from the implants in body and brains of cyber-humans.
© Ruth Lewis 2019