Neurotechnology, Cyborgs, and the Sense of Self

May, 2002

Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D. is a senior fellow of the Center of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also the Director of the program in Psychiatry and Ethics.

PAUL WOLPE: Some people think that, in some sense, human beings have taken over evolution and that the evolutionary process is going to end with our own conscious directive of our physiology. That, in some sense, the first stage of evolution was an unconscious physical evolution, and the second stage was a cultural interruption of that physical evolution through the ways in which culture, through medicine and other ways, stop natural selection. And, what we now have is a fusion of those two things where culture is going to determine our very physiological forms.

Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D. - Thumbnail 
Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D.Credit: Scott Lasky 
We’re already beginning that agenda. We’re sculpting flesh. We’re genetically altering mice so that their skin is less likely to cause an immune response in human beings; sculpting a human ear on the back of a mouse with the idea of eventually  being able to transplant it onto human beings; to transplant organs from one species to another to create transgenic pigs and take their hearts. It’s always a fascinating thing I do with my undergraduates. I tell them, I say, “You know we’ve got these transgenic pigs, who, the pig heart is most compatible with the human heart; same size. And,  so all we’re going to do is we’re going to  genetically alter these pigs so that the heart won’t be rejected, and then we’ll have this flock of pigs, gaggle of pigs, whatever a lot of pigs are called,  and when somebody needs a heart transplant, we’ll take the pig out and we’ll slaughter it, we’ll cut out its heart and we’ll transplant it. ”

And, they go, “That’s terrible. That’s just a terrible thing to do to a pig.” Until you remind them about bacon and ham  and all the other ways that we slaughter pigs for reasons that aren’t life-saving. But, I do that exercise with every class, and every class reacts the same way. In order to illustrate this fundamental moral disconnect we have. It is exactly moral repugnance that sometimes is stupid.

So, we really have to get under the kind of initial ideas and try to understand what the implications are of the moral principles on which we’re basing our decisions. We’re taking not only higher creatures, but lower creatures. We’re taking viruses, genetically altering them, using them as viral vectors in order to try to do gene transfer trials. We’re talking about taking nano-technologies, creating something like microscopic sized computer chips, sending them into our bloodstream, perhaps, to rotorooter out our arterial sclerosis, perhaps, being sent to the brain. Some people are talking about this flooding the brain with microscopic computer chips and thus enhancing certain kinds of brain processes.

In a sense what we’re talking about is a whole series of physio-technologies, that is, technologies that are going to be incorporated into our very flesh that will become part of who we are. We’re already doing it. We have prosthetic limbs that all of us know about, and yet somehow we think of those limbs as separate from ourselves. Unless of course you happen to use one. And, if you talk to someone who has an artificial arm or leg or other limb that they depend on, and you ask them about their relationship to it, it’s not just a piece of hardware that they strap on.

And, sure the pumps and bulbs and balloons of the body are the first things that we can synthesize, but other things are coming and they’re coming very quickly, and they’re coming from all sides. So, now we’re talking about brain implantation technologies. And, they’ve been used for a whole series of diseases so far. For Parkinson’s, for epilepsy, for blindness, for depression. These are new technologies that are not going to be of the same type of the old technologies in that we won’t, anymore, ask the question, “Well, does the me that can have a relationship with a prosthetic arm, have a relationship with this brain technology?”

And, they’re going to enter other realms, too, not just medicine. We’ve talked about some of them. Daniel Lang and others have tried to create— tried to show that under a PET scan, people who are lying can have different patterns of brain activity, and so pretty soon we may have a fairly effective, though it’s still in its primitive stages now, lie detector. We have technology now implanted already in the brain, cochlear ear implants. And, let’s think about those for a second, because there is a group in the United States right now that say that putting in ear implants is denying them their rights as a subculture.

There is a social construction of function in that sub-community that suggests that this kind of technological innovation is taking away something that is inherent in their self-definition and something they value; that is their inability to hear. And, so the idea that some people are not going to accept these technologies, even if we can convince them that they’re harmless, because a set of subcultural values, a set of religious values that suggest that certain ways of being are correct and technological manipulation of them are wrong, is something that all of these technologies are going to have to deal with.

Kevin Warwick, as some of you may know, is a Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Redding in England. He had a chip implanted in his arm that allowed him to turn on and off lights, to open doors and have his whole laboratory always know exactly where he was in space. His reaction to that was this: “I did begin to feel strangely connected to both the building and the computer. I was more at one with the systems that were at work in my department.” He said he felt integrated into his environment in a way he never did before.

He now wants to implant a chip in his wife’s arm and have, actually, this chip able to transmit to the computer and back to his wife, have a connection with his wife through this computer chip, and then eventually to implant a similar chip in his brain, perhaps be able to communicate with his wife telepathically at that point. And, that is no longer just science fiction. This is something that we actually have the  technological capability to attempt. We have learned how to hack into the Webware between our ears in the same way that we’ve learned how to hack into other systems and change the patterns of communication over the net and other ways.

We need to ask the sort of broader question of what is the next step of evolution—using that word in its sort of common sense rather than its technical sense—how is it that as a species we want to direct ourselves, and towards what goals, as we begin to incorporate our bionics into our bodies?