Should we encourage the development of consumer cybernetics?

Group 3


Cybernetics is the field of human and machine integration, implanting devices into humans to enhance abilities, or to provide replacements for those they lack. These devices can be full limbs, or small sensor arrays implanted in or near the brain. Some cybernetic devices are already in wide use today, including pacemakers and cochlear implants.

These devices have many beneficial applications, such as lost limb replacements in the medical field. However, their development could be used for military purposes, or even be used to further enable crime. Is this a technology we want to be easily accessible?

Ethical support for consumer Cybernetics

Bioethics are the moral ethics and laws set to protect people, limiting all possible harms and threats of advanced technology. Such laws are there to ensure that biotechnology, where technology is involved in the biological system such as cybernetics, prosthesis, brain-computer interface, and nanotechnology, do not affect people’s lives unethically and immorally. This includes the choice of disease and disability treatments.

Many people could benefit from cybernetics, especially those with medical conditions and disabilities, as well as healthy people who wish to enhance their current abilities. From a Utilitarian perspective this technology brings the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Cybernetic applications have the potential to enhance quality of life and bring greater happiness to everyone.

Cybernetics should be an available option for all, from Kant’s theory there shouldn’t be any ban or restriction on this technology since it improves people’s lives, cures many diseases, respects human dignity, and can be a universal law, to provide everyone with efficient life-bettering solutions.

Doctors and healthcare workers will very likely support cybernetics and help those with difficult medical conditions who cannot be treated with current existing solutions.

The Virtue Ethics theory which considers the character of the actor to determine the morality of an action regardless of the action itself and its consequences, will be with whatever decision doctors and care-workers go with, hence supports helping people using cybernetics.

From a Care Ethics point of view, engineers, care-providers, and patients can all benefit from this technology. It will enhance the relationship between the stakeholders.

Why go with cybernetics?

Cybernetics has mainly been developed to overcome medical problems and improve the quality of life of patients with various physical and mental conditions. Prosthetic  limbs, brain implants for mental diseases and mechanical medical devices that replace organs are good examples of existing cybernetic applications. Thanks to this technology, smarter prosthesis such as mentally-controlled limbs with extended abilities can be made possible. Implanting smart parts of nanotechnology and computer-controlled chips has opened the door for new more effective medical solutions, such as the ability to repair and replace damaged parts as well as to control and move muscles. Similar implants have the potential to return sight to blind and vision-impaired people.

Enhancement Technologies

Cybernetics are not only capable of providing medical therapeutic aids but also extending existing human capabilities, here are some examples of the possible enhancements:

  • Cortical implants that turn the eyes into cameras and grant night vision capabilities
  • Combat physical disabilities
  • Brain-computer interfaces that enhance cognitive abilities and add extra new functions
  • Direct brain-to-brain communication
  • Enhanced speech and communication abilities
  • Enhanced physical strength
  • Enhanced sensory capabilities
  • Mentally-drive external modes of transport (e.g. wheelchairs and cars)
  • Mentally-control gadgets, smart clothes and jewellery

Ethical arguments against consumer Cybernetics

In order for cybernetic technology to be developed human experimentation must be undergone. Without human testing the nerve-machine interfaces required could not be developed, and material rejection from the human body could not be studied effectively. This requirement causes cybernetic development to be seen as unethical from the perspective of Kant’s Theory, as few people would volunteer to be experimented upon in ways that could put their lives at risk.

Cybernetic technologies have many potential advantages for military applications, and so consumer development will inspire military development, causing this technology to not only increase the power and efficiency of combat units, but also to become compulsory for military members, regardless of their health or consent. This will cause many people discomfort, both directly and indirectly, and therefore is not supported from a Utilitarian perspective.

Allowing the general public access to this technology will open up the possibility for misuse by the general public, causing criminals to have greater capabilities thanks to enhancements which will fuel a new wave of violent crime, as well as encouraging people to undergo limb removal and device attachment surgeries, unnecessarily putting their lives at risk. Users would not be the only parties misusing the technology, as retailers would look for cheaper units to upsell, regardless of their standard of safety, causing higher amounts of injury and discomfort among users. These vectors of misuse will bring fear, suffering, and dissatisfaction to the masses, meaning as a consumer technology it is unethical from a Utilitarian standpoint.

Limb replacements hold a particular level of danger to users, as if they are made to be too powerful, they could rip themselves out of sockets, and potentially break surrounding bones and tear surrounding muscles. Even if limiters are applied to these devices, there will be those who find ways of bypassing these in favour of greater enhancement, which will expose them to this danger once again. Even without limiters being bypassed, if these devices that are closely integrated with the human body malfunction they could cause severe injuries, including permanent disfigurements, brain damage, or even death. These limiter and malfunction issues could also present themselves in any of the other enhancement types, with varying levels of potential damage. These issues present a severe threat to public well-being, a risk which no good person would be prepared to make, meaning this technology is unethical from a Virtue Ethics standpoint.

If consumer cybernetics were released to the general public, it would cause a great divide between people, as there will be those who shun the idea of modifying the body with artificial components. These reasons could be due to cultural or religious beliefs, or just personal ideologies, but they could end up introducing a new era of discrimination, damaging relationships, and serving to cause mass discomfort. For these reasons neither Care Ethics nor Utilitarian Ethics would support a consumer release of this technology.

Our initial conclusion

We are for encouraging the development of consumer cybernetics.

  5. Ethics, technology and engineering textbook

1 thought on “Should we encourage the development of consumer cybernetics?

  1. Feedback
    1. Clarity of problem/dilemma
    The problem is clearly stated with a good point made for each side of the dilemma.

    2. Use of ethical theories in the For Case
    You defined bioethics, but I wasn’t clear on how bioethics supported the case for cybernetics.
    For Virtue ethics, I would suggest examining the motivation for those developing the cybernetic devices. What is their intention?
    For Care ethics, could you develop how the relationship between the patient and the engineer is improved please? Presumably, the engineer is using technology to help the patient’s quality of life.

    3. Use of Ethical theories in the Against case
    A good use of utilitarianism and Kant’s theory. I wasn’t too clear on the Virtue Ethics case though.
    4. Advice on Assignment Two
    a. Identifying stakeholders
    b. Courses of action
    There are lot of stakeholders here, have a think about the role of the regulatory authorities as they’re both stakeholders and part of the Options for action.
    With regards to Courses for Action have a look at your discussion on limiters as you could use the ‘informed consent’ argument here.

    5. Personal remarks
    An interesting article with some good reasoning.

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