Augmented humans? Not so fast!

Human augmentation elicits reactions that are not unanimously positive.

Technologist: What are the potential consequences of accepting the “augmented human” in society?

Gregor Wolbring: There are many that we might not even envision now. But let me focus on failure and obsolescence, two issues that are rarely discussed. What happens when the mechanisms fails in the middle of an action? Failure has hazardous consequences, but obsolescence has psychological ones. If software is updated to solve some bugs of a robotic prosthesis, it will be easily implemented. The constant surgical inter­vention needed to update the hardware may not be feasible. A person might feel obsolete if she cohabits with others using a newer version.

T. Are researchers working on prosthetics sometimes disconnected from reality?

G. W. Students engaged in the development of prosthetics have to learn how to think in societal terms and develop a broader perspective. Our education system provides them with a fascination for clever solutions to technological challenges but not with tools aiming at understanding the consequences, such as whether their product might increase or decrease social justice.

T. But giving mobility back to people seems like a valuable goal.

G. W. It depends on the sales pitch. There are many forms of mobility and today normality is associated with walking. Various people use the term, “wheelchair bound” in order to sell bionic legs as the liberator from such confinement, ignoring that the wheelchair is for many a tool of liberation already.

Gregor Wolbring (biochemist and bioethicist at the University of Calgary)