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Ryan Alexander

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Cybernetics: New robotic prosthetic organs and the ethtical implications.

In an article in the economist, a team of robotics experts have created a working human body, comprised completely of artificial prosthetics. The robot had no cognition but had a working heart that pumped blood through the system and a working digestive system. These new prosthetics could be the future of organ replacement. This great stride forward in cybernetics has brought up some ethical concerns. The prosthetics, at first, will be extremely expensive, leaving room only for the rich to partake in the new prosthetics. This alone brings up many questions. For instance, say that these prosthetics are actually more efficient than the original organs, how do we determine who is in need of a prosthetic? The implications of a completely robotic organ system, could also be the prolonged life of the rich, if the technology is good enough, it could allow them to live forever.

Some questions to think about:

1)Who should get these prosthetics?
2)Should voluntary surgeries be allowed to increase the efficiency of the human body?
3)Where do we draw the line at what type of prosthetics a person should be allowed to get?
4)Is it ethical to allow people able to afford prosthetics to increase their life span hundreds of years or indefinitely?
5)A less important question in my mind but….where do we draw the line at what is human and what is robot?

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  • Jul 20 2013: More efficient, haha, excuse me while I laugh on the floor from the sheer ridiculousness of it. Technology as it exists now and, more importantly, as it exists in a preformed idea before it becomes reality is far too primitive to be able to build something with the complexity and interconnected wholeness of natural organisms. Even the most primitive organisms such as flies are far superior in every way to any machine ever built. What is needed to make such machines possible, this means organic machines? A different way of thinking is needed, creative, organic, non-mechanistic.
    • Jul 20 2013: Actually living organisms are wholly inefficient.
      They tend to be overly complex, poorly optimized, and all in all built with no specific purpose in mind, which makes them pretty poor as tools.

      Think say, a car vs. a horse. The car doesn't need to have a little car factory inside it, not does it need to fuel up on grass, or to grow from a small car to a big car. Despite it being a lot less sophisticated, this focus makes it a much better tool for transportation than a horse.
      We already have computers more intelligent than some insects, and Moore's law dictates they'd only grow more powerful at an exponential rate.

      More complex isn't better. On the contrary, good engineering is about making your design as simple as it can be while still fulfilling its purpose--over complication hurts efficiency, drives up costs, and reduces reliability.

      True, human technology is still nowhere near as complex as the natural world, but we're getting there, if slowly. Its not ridiculous, its a matter of time.
      • Jul 20 2013: The complexity of natural organisms is necessary for them to be able to adapt to the complexity that life presents to them. The machines humans produce are incredibly primitive, sure a car can cover a distance with great speed but is limited to driving on a road, in addition it breaks down whereas, to a limited degree, organisms have an immune system, additionally they can provide for themselves by being able to search for food and also replicate themselves. My God, the mind boggles when you start to notice how much better organisms are in every way that is useful for them. Machines on the other hand are totally reliant on us to keep them going.

        You say that we are getting there, well the problem is the ingrained mechanistic way of thinking which separates and then attempts to recombine to get the whole. This can never work. The problem here is the way of thinking that human beings use to create machines not the machines themselves. It is this way of thinking which limits what we make.

        There are too many examples of discoveries made about organisms, almost daily, which shows their inherent multipurpose inbuilt functions. Change the way of human thought and then, only then will real progress be made, otherwise its just more machines of the same kind we have now.
        • Jul 21 2013: I wholeheartedly agree.

          Changing the human thought process is the beginnings of a technological singularity unlike we've ever seen before, and its the only way our engineering will ever rival the complexity of nature (even if it is better optimized for tool use even at present conditions).
          Either that, or design machines that can think independently and do their own engineering.

          I personally think its only a matter of time until the human thought process is augmented.
          Of course, it'll take time yet. Our brains, being a design of evolution, are neither well optimized nor very well suited for artificial modification. Once we overcome that limit, aside from the philosophical and ethical considerations, the practical change will be incomprehensible.
  • Jul 18 2013: Concerning the issue of immortal humans (apparently I've replied too much bellow, so I'll continue up here):

    Why is it unethical to allow people to live forever?
    I'd understand the problem if we did it by force, keeping barely functional individuals on life support as vegetables. If we can allow people to live forever as functioning citizens however, what's the problem?

    Sure its unnatural, but to be perfectly frank, mother nature as a harsh, merciless mistress that abuses its children. The natural world is not a nice place to live--animals and plants an in a constant struggle to kill each other over limited resources. Defective individuals don't make it past childhood. Its survival of the fittest; in other worlds, everything human civilization isn't.
    We should strive to surpass nature, not be enslaved by it.

    You question what drain it will be on society, and I say little to non, so long as the people living forever are doing so as functioning citizens.
    In fact, I'd go as far as saying they'd be less of a burden to society. They don't need pensions, because they'll never retire. Their body doesn't break down as they age, which makes them less of a burden on the medical system.
    You also have the added benefit of things like doctors, engineers or leaders with theoretically unlimited years of experience (assuming their memories will also be augmented and their psychology will be able to cope with all the unforeseen issues living forever would cause--but those are technological limitations, not fundamental problems).

    You could argue for the unborn children whose births we'd have to limit to allow for an undying populace, but under that logic, every theoretical child you could be conceiving at any time has that same problem. You can't moralize over hypothetical people that never were and never will be.

    I see no reason we shouldn't allow people to live forever, especially as we'd have to regulate births eventually anyway.
  • Jul 17 2013: Agreed, the bioethics questions are the things that are driving the cost of medical service within the US. We say every life is equally important and we assume we have infinite resources.

    1. those that can use the prosthetics the best and the longest. If the prosthetics are cheap with no follow up, then everyone.
    2. why not
    3. why?
    4. we do it today, with organ transplants - Steve Jobs liver
    5. so long as the brain with the emotions are there, they are still human.
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      Jul 17 2013: 1) So if the prosthetic's allowed individuals to live forever or for hundreds of years. We should allow this to happen....IMPLICATIONS: the people that control these prosthetic devices now have control over who is living longer and who isn't. If there is no regulation on these prosthetic's the price can be held over peoples head.

      Populations could sky rocket if people aren't dying because of the prosthetics ect.

      2) Implications of above

      3) Implications of above

      4) Living forever or for hundreds of years...could have major implications. I understand not having a problem with this. I am just pointing this out.

      5) I don't really care about this....it's just something they pointed out in the article.
      • Jul 18 2013: population is growing without prosthetics but may or may not exacerbate the population problem. another good discussion - how to manage population growth.
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          Jul 18 2013: I understand that population is a major problem already, that's why the ethics of prosthetic must be discussed. I don't feel that one should accept any major change without contemplation of the implications that may take place.

          As for populations growth, we must start using birth controls...birth quotas ect. I hate saying mandated sterilization because of the inhumanity but it is a complicated problem, in which the issue is human life. Which makes it difficult to determine.
  • Jul 17 2013: Cybornetics is a 2012 science fiction film written & directed by Dwayne Buckle. Cybernetics is probably what your talking about.
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      Jul 17 2013: Thank you for the correction....do you have any thoughts? Or just that correction?
  • Jul 17 2013: I don't see reason to limit cybernetic surgery for anything other than the inevitable military grade versions, which should be regulated as weapons.
    A man or woman's body is his own property; you ought to be allowed to do anything you want with it.

    Cybernetics will only be the domain of the rich at the beginning. It won't take long for a budget market to appear, just like with everything else. It used to be that only rich men had cars. Now, they're prevalent even in the third world. Cybernetics will trickle down if you give them time, just like anything else.

    You can argue the morality of forcing the poor to wait for who knows how long until technological development will benefit their lives (and that delay is getting shorter as time rolls by), but in the end of the day, its just the way of the world.
    Collectively punishing everyone because society can't provide equal benefit for 100% of the populace is patently absurd. There is a reason the communist block no longer exists (though you'll find that even in the communist block, there were rich men as well as poor--which just goes to show you, c'est la vie).
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      Jul 17 2013: I understand your argument but what about social implications...population increases? The people that control the prosthetics literally control materials that control how long people live. Can you foresee no problems with this? Should we just let this run its course? Thoughts?
      • Jul 17 2013: Over population is already a problem without people living forever. The world's population is growing steadily and very quickly for a long time now, and the earth can only support so many people.
        Transhuman technology will only hasten the problem (by exactly how much, its hard to say), not create it.

        Solving the over population problem is about regulating the number of births, not keeping people from dying.
        Though I personally predict that unless its taken down by a plague, global famine, or a nuclear war unlike anything we've seen before, over population will be a very real issue long before we figure out how to make people live forever. Regulating the number of births is going to be painful, but that's another story altogether. It has little to do with the implications of transhuman technology.

        As for the people who control the tech controlling how people live, that changes the moment the patents wear off and things becomes competitive. Its no different than say, a company which develops a new type of vaccine or medicine, and we live with that just fine today.

        You also need to remember that this tech won't mature over night. Its a long, slow gradual process.
        We'll start off with small things and a lot of drawbacks. Think repairing cripples or genetic defects as opposed to upgrading a healthy person.
        Its not like some corporation will start selling immortality elixirs tomorrow. Things will unravel slowly, giving society a chance to adapt along the way.

        Take the transition from horses to motor vehicles for example. Did you know the German army invading Russia in 1941 took three quarter of a million horses with it, despite the modern gasoline engine being invented in 1885 ?
        These things don't happen overnight. The transition period can easily last decades even if its invented tomorrow. There is time to adapt.
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          Jul 18 2013: I agree with all that you are saying and I am aware that population overgrowth is already a problem.

          I have entertained the idea of birth controls, the implementation would be difficult but a necessity, especially in developing countries.

          I would hope that the market would compete to bring down prices. Although, ethically, I don't believe that it is okay to live forever or live for hundreds of years. Our time is limited and the implications of living for an extended period of time, isn't in the best interest of society. Unless we find a way to allocate resources to a population living for an extremely long time, it is not in the best interest of society.

          I guess another question would, would living for an extended period of time hold any sort of benefit to society? or would it just be another burden?
  • Jul 17 2013: The easy questions first:

    2. In the USA we have already answered this question. We allow people to have surgery for the most trivial of reasons.

    4. Of course it is. That is one of the primary objectives of the practice of medicine.

    5. If you were born human, the presumption is that you remain human as long as you are alive. I have not been keeping up with the legal definition of death, but I think it now has something to do with brain function.

    Questions 1 and 3 are a matter of individual liberty. If you believe in individual freedom and the right to pursue happiness, then society has no right to interfere with people getting whatever elective surgery they choose.

    Personally, I think our concept of human rights and liberties are too liberal. The concept was invented centuries ago in reaction to tyrannical governments. Now that we have some experience with human rights and modern democracy it is time to give these concepts some serious thought by analyzing their strengths and weaknesses. One of the weaknesses is the separation human rights from human responsibilities. The responsibilities of people in the medical field should be very specifically written into law. Too many doctors practice medicine for the single objective of maximizing their own income, while too many people cannot afford the health care they desperately need. Health care should not be just another industry, as it is today.
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      Jul 17 2013: Regarding your answers to my questions.

      I should have made it a little more clear, what do you believe is the ethics of allowing people to live for ever or even for hundreds of years, using prosthetic organs, being that only the rich could afford the surgeries. It's a complicated question but one worth asking and one I am looking for some opinions on.

      On top of this, what should doctors responsibilities be and where should the government regulate their responsibility? At what cost should public health be the a countries citizens?

      Could you also clarify on what you mean by, "One of the weaknesses is the separation (of) human rights from human responsibilities." Maybe use some examples?
      • Jul 17 2013: The principle of individual freedom means that we cannot "allow" or disallow people to live forever. We cannot allow or disallow physicians to provide special treatment for the rich.. That is why I made the remark about the separation of freedom and responsibilities. When and if society decides to formally connect responsibilities with human rights, society will have to decide how to make that connection and what responsibilities each freedom entails. For example, society might insist that all citizens must vote. More relevantly, the privilege of practicing medicine might involve a few years of providing medical care to the poor. Those are just examples, I think that the actual responsibilities should and must be a major societal discussion.

        I strongly believe that society has an ethical obligation to those who cannot take care of themselves. This obligation does not necessarily have to be carried out by the government.

        I think much of our society idealizes individual freedom, and cannot think about these concepts in a historical scale, extending from millenniums in the past and millenniums into the future. The ideas that started the world on the road to modern democracy, about 3 centuries ago, were just a good start toward something much better. Lets continue down the path with the next big idea.