Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


This brief update on the coming era of the cyborg has gotten some blogospheric attention, but I have my own take. Basically, in case you didn't know, developing technology now allows human brains to be connected directly to computers, via implanted electrodes or scanning devices such as magnetic resonance imaging. Much speculation and alarm concerns the possibility of mind reading, which may sound implausible but is actually already in early stages of actually happening.

For the foreseeable future, this will require sticking your head in a big, expensive device for a considerable period, so it won't be invading your privacy as you walk through the shopping mall. However, it could do interesting things to criminal investigations and who knows, maybe even job applications some day.

But I'd like to focus on the other application, which is prosthetics. The major direction of this research is to enable people who are paralyzed or missing limbs to control replacement limbs or even entire bodies directly with their brains. That could certainly benefit people who have a very tough lot in life. Another example of science fiction becoming real is the field of so-called regenerative medicine. Yes, this also happens to be where all the religious nuts are having fits of moral idiocy over the use of embryonic stem cells. Leaving that aside, amputees may not even need to become cyborgs because they'll be able to grow new limbs. We might also be able to grow new organs -- hearts, livers, kidneys, even brain components. (And therein lie some philosophical conundrums, for another day.)

This isn't happening tomorrow but it might be happening soon enough that we need to think about it hard, starting yesterday. Here's what troubles me.

Of the world's 7 billion people, how many do you think will have access to these technologies? If we invest hundreds of billions of dollars to learn to grow new hearts, the only people who will get them are rich people, who will then have shiny new hearts that keep on pumping till they're 120 years old. It will never be cheap until some time after war and injustice are eradicated.

It's astonishing and wondrous and it has great commercial potential -- the latter being the real reason there's funding for it. It seems wrong to speak against finding ways of healing the sick, but we don't yet offer the astonishing and wondrous medicine we already have to the vast majority of the earth's people. It just doesn't seem right.

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