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BIOHAZARDS by Paige Comstock Cunningham

Bionics in Reach

On Removable Limbs, Fairness & Upgrades

One of the most vivid pictures from my childhood is the disturbing ink drawing of Princess Langwidere from Ozma of Oz, who had a wardrobe of thirty heads, which she changed daily. In real life, Aimee Mullins can also change an appendage, two to be exact. A model, actress, and Paralympic athlete who became a double-leg amputee when she was just a year old, Mullins now owns a dozen pairs of prosthetic legs in a variety of designs, enabling her to choose her height, ranging from 5'8"to 6'1".

Prosthetic legs illustrate how therapeutic technologies have the potential to enhance or augment the human body. Thanks to technology, the old wooden leg has been replaced with a high-performance, carbon-fiber "Cheetah blade." The next generation of prosthetics could well be thought-controlled limbs, which would benefit both amputees and those with spinal cord injuries.

When is a prosthetic therapeutic, and when is it an augmentation of human capacities that gives the wearer an "unfair advantage"? When Mullins attended a party with a newly designed pair of legs, strolling in at an elegant 6'1", one friend complained, "It's not fair that you can change your height."1 The conversation about her legs had moved from prosthetics to aesthetics to augmentation and the issue of fairness.

South African runner Oscar Pistorius was excluded from competing in able-bodied events for four years, because his prosthetic blades were said to give him an unfair advantage. He was permitted to participate in the 2012 Olympics, where he missed the finals, and when he later lost a race in the Paralympics, he complained that the winner's longer prosthetic blades made him "unbelievably high."2

Both Mullins and Pistorius use prosthetics to replace limbs lost by medical misfortune. Similarly, ongoing clinical trials with retinal implants have restored vision to at least two people who had become totally blind.3 But what about the possibility that such technologies might be adopted by someone with no functional disablement? Luke Robert Mason, director of Virtual Futures, asks, "Would you swap a healthy eye for a bionic one with additional functionality?"4 It's not a moot question. Color-blind artist Neil Harbisson already wears a headset that enables him to "hear" the frequencies of color. His next planned upgrade? A device that will enable him to hear ultraviolet colors that are invisible to the human eye.5

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Demands for enhancements are not only for aesthetic or athletic purposes. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has tested a brain-monitoring cap that successfully detected over 90 percent of real threats it was presented with. The cap detects motion that human brains perceive but that fatigue—such as might be experienced by patrols in Afghanistan, for example—prevents them from processing.

This augmented reality (AR) can extend the perceptions and abilities of even the most highly skilled person. Can AR be justified for military purposes? Perhaps, but if a profit can be made, the temptation to extend its use to civilians will be virtually irresistible.

Unlike a therapeutic prosthetic, augmentation does not compensate for an injured or missing body part, but extends the range and reach of a natural physical or mental capacity. The push for augmentation is motivated by dissatisfaction with a normal human body or by the desire to gain an advantage over others. It's as if the Creator's design were 1.0, when what we want is the 2.0 upgrade. As AR and other technologies become commercialized, we all may be vulnerable to the temptation to become, well, more godlike, or at least superhuman.

It's not too late for ethical guidelines to be drawn. A bionic upgrade to the human eye, leg, or brain, is not possible . . . yet. 

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