Imagine using you hand to make contactless payments. Imagine giving the colour-blind the ability to perceive a rainbow. Imagine a device that could vibrate your genitalia on command. It might not all be a pretty future, but for some it is the future they strive for. Welcome to the world of ‘Do It Yourself Biohacking’.
Dealing with Regulation
DIY biohacking offers an opportunity to sidestep the bureaucracy of regulation and to create devices that might not traditionally be developed due to a lack of profitability. However, the associated risks can include serious harm without the safeguards of regulation. Given technology’s inexorable progression, it is reasonable to suppose that biohacking is an inevitable stage of human development regardless of risks or legislative intervention, especially given that 50% of people surveyed by us would consider biohacking for themselves.
Developers of biohacking devices that are sold on a ‘do it yourself’ basis, are able to retail products that would be commercially non-viable if regulated to CE or
FDA standards. Device users traditionally implant with the help of friends or an unregulated ‘surgeon’. Medical professionals are largely unable to participate in this legal gray area, one of the most prominent reasons is that they must ‘first do no harm’ which could be somewhat infringed by implanting unregulated technology into people. This poses an interesting problem as it could be fair to say that by not operating to avoid harming the patient, they are allowing the patient to harm themselves with unregulated individuals operating on them.
One problem with regulation is the right to bodily autonomy (‘my body, my choice’), but in this case it is less contentious than with an issue like abortion. Bearing this in mind it is difficult to impose direct penalties on those ‘hacking’ themselves, instead regulation would have to focus on limiting access to devices or imposing penalties on those who operate. Public opinion seems to support limiting access (68%), but as anyone who keeps up with the political landscape may know, consensus does not qualify a decision as wise *cough* Brexit *cough*. A hedonist approach to ethics would not appear to support regulation unless you consider that any additional pressures on the NHS due to faulty biohacking would become a societal problem.
A less direct approach may be to support the biohacking community by providing a legal framework around which businesses can be built and regulated to safely implant devices. These businesses could operate under a similar framework to the body art business, despite this also needing legal updates, this is generally publicly supported. By ensuring that a framework is in place to make biohacking safe, a deontological approach to ethics is taken whereby the ethical priority is that implementation of biohacking is done safely and with the best of intentions.
A simpler approach is to take a ‘laissez faire’ attitude (see also Stoic) or Wu Wei depending on your geophilosophical preferences), it is likely that the most harmful effects of DIY biohacking will be self-limiting as people’s natural aversion to body mutilation may suppress the worst of any injuries. The Stoic school of thought would suggest accepting some injuries as an inevitable part of progress regulating only examples of corruption and misuse.
Danger and Discrimination
Nevertheless, public safety must be considered. As the biohacking community grows, the number of potential biohackers continues to increase. The current regulation for implants only apply to “medical devices”. A loophole exists for implants to be designated as non-medical and thereby entirely circumvent these regulations. By exploiting this loophole, biohacking start-ups are able to avoid the time and high costs associated with receiving regulatory approval. However, alarmingly this removes the need for any oversight of the engineering and manufacture of these implants. As a result, they could not be implanted by medical professionals, without risking their medical license. As previously stated, currently devices are implanted by body artists, and enthusiasts; often in biohacking conferences.
The unique selling point of biohacking is it provides a path beyond the biological limitations of the human body. Nonetheless, as these devices have both been designed and implanted by individuals with little-to-no engineering or medical knowledge, the risks engendered by neglecting proper practice overshadows the possible rewards. From an ethics standpoint this argument is best described as a deontological position; an ethical framework which views actions taken as more important than the resulting consequences, and where morality is judged based on adherence to the proper rules and procedures.
Additionally, in the quest to improve one’s own abilities, upgrading yourself through biohacking will eventually allow an individual to surpass the realm of human possibility. This begs the question, if a typical person and a biohacker applied for the same job, but the biohacker had modified themselves to perform significantly better, beyond the reach of normal human potential, who should be granted this job? This is a concern, as biohacking can provide new channels of discrimination that could harmfully divide society. The seeds for this new division can already be observed as it is the desire of many biohackers to be reclassified as “transhuman” or “cyborg”.
Furthermore, within this community, discrimination between biohackers could also become prevalent. The danger is that as more advanced implants are released due to a growing interest from renowned technology companies, such as Elon Musk’s proposed “Neurolink”. Promoting an unhealthy desire in some to constantly want to be implanted with the latest body modifications. Opening the door for social stigma against individuals that are unable to keep up due to factors that restrict access, such as social class.
DIY Biohacking is clearly a contentious issue. Both the disabled and able bodied can benefit from custom, innovative devices. However, the risk to the public from faulty or malicious technology is too great to ignore. Regulation is required but balancing between risks and benefits of biohacking is also important. Too much and public health may suffer as biohackers go ‘underground’, too little and the societal consequences could be catastrophic. We feel that a good compromise could be regulation like the body art industry.