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Cyborgs and the opportunity of Medical Research

Credit Neil Harbisson, Flickr

We’ve all read a book or watched a movie where a half-human, half-machine-like creature with a mechanical eye and a metal arm effortlessly flips over a car or shoots lasers from his fists. For all you devotees of Transformers, I must sadly inform you that medical technology in the real world has not progressed to the point where you-too can be shooting lasers out of your arms and flipping cars when they steal your car spot!

However, for those in the real world (i.e. those not fans of Transformers) might be wondering what is a cyborg anyway and, more importantly, what do they show about the development of medical technology?

Simply put, a cyborg is a person that has an electronic component working directly with, and alongside their vital organisms and nervous systems. The mechanical component of a cyborg is not an addition to the body, but a part of the person themselves. Despite a definition that is open to interpretation (I’m looking at those with pacemakers), no human had been legally recognised as a cyborg.

That changed with Neil Harbisson, who was born with achromatopsia, meaning he was only able to see in black and white. Always the artistic type, it was of no surprise to anyone that he put his minimal colour spectrum to good use and started playing piano at the age of eleven. At university, he studied at a fine arts school, where he got special permission to paint using only black, white, and shades of grey.

Ever the creative and enterprising student he was, Harbisson set out to rectify his predicament. Unbeknownst to him, by pairing with cybernetics expert and fellow student Adam Montandon to develop the ‘Eyeborg’, they would make a significant medical discovery that would change his life and eventually open the pandora’s box of [technologically] augmented human beings.

On first thought, the Eyeborg sounds like a device that allows Harbisson to see colours, but in reality, the device is far more innovative. The eyeborg was never designed to allow Harbisson to see colours, rather it was created to help him hear them; a seventh sense, if you like. The device detects the electromagnetic signature — that is, the reflectional sound variation — of a colour, and converts it into a specific sound frequency.

Building on his profound musical abilities, Harbisson memorised the sounds associated with visible colours, and now can tell what colour he’s looking at as fast as an average person. He can see (or hear) colours outside the human range too, such as ultraviolet and infrared. He can look at a picture, or a bookshelf, or a city skyline, and his brain will amalgamate the colours into a symphony inside of his head. Nice work if you can hear it.

We are now at a point in time where the rate at which humans are advancing is about to be overtaken by the pace of innovation and scientific development in medical research and technology

Evident to the novelty of such an invention, Harbisson’s eyeborg brought the conflict between medical technology and traditional physiology to the fore. When British Passport Authorities prohibited Harbisson from wearing the device in his passport, he insisted that the eyeborg was integral part of his being; much like what an arm, toe or indeed eye is to you, the reader. It was only through a concerted effort by doctors, specialists and witnesses did the authorities relent to allow Harbisson from being photographed with the full apparatus attached.

We are now at a point in time where the rate at which humans are advancing is about to be overtaken by the pace of innovation and scientific development in medical research and technology. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing; after all, Harbisson’s eyeborgdiscovery showcases the life-changing opportunity of medical research and technology.

If society is to truly leverage future medical discoveries to treat ailments and improve health, we must critically consider how laws and regulations will accomodate the integration of technology into the human being. Fundamental to deciphering this, I believe, is reaching an agreement on a more specific definition of what a ‘cyborg’ really is. If you were to ask me, as someone deeply fascinated with medical research but not all that legally trained, laws should recognise that augmented technologies which aim restore the affected human body to a ‘normal’ state should be considered part of the person, not extraneous to it.

If society is to truly leverage future medical discoveries to treat ailments and improve health, we must critically consider how laws and regulations will accomodate the integration of technology into the human being

The problem is made more complex by the data-capturing abilities of most, if not all, implantable technology. Society recognises that the entitlement to personal privacy and possession of one’s own body is a fundamental human right, with ownership of decisions being critical in determining who we are- much like Harbisson’s decision to implant the Eyeborg into his body.

By accepting such technologies as being a part of the person themselves, jurists and government can confidently enshrine some preliminary order around the way in which the data from these technologies is protected and how they are accessed until a more robust framework can be developed at a time where cyborg-like devices become more integral to the human beings. This, in effect, will mean that human’s with a device like this will not be treated any differently than those without them in the eyes of the law.

Government and society will, however, need to address these concerns with more emphasis in the future as bionic eye and nano-fractal technologies become more prominent. For example, the ability to extract imagery of a certain event from photography-based eye technologies may be of use to authorities, but will impact those with and without the technology in various ways.

Whilst Harbisson’s eyeborg and future medical discoveries that blur the lines between man and technology (fully articulated prosthetics or telescopic vision, anyone?) may initially be confronting, it is important to think of how the life-changing nature of some of the developments. Perhaps for those of us fortunate to not have been born with a condition like achromatopsia, Harbisson’s eyeborg is evidence of how such technologies can improve the lives of those less fortunate.

The opportunities of medical research are abundant; making these developments all the more exciting as society continues to work very hard to improve health outcomes and even reverse disability. Eyeborg-like medical technologies are now a part of reality- it is now time for boosted investment in further discoveries and assurance that legal and regulatory frameworks are amended so society does not lose out on the opportunity of medical research.

Now, can someone tell me, what colour does my Ferrari sound like?

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