Robots and Brain Chips – Emerging Technologies to a ‘Hyper Human’ future

The Policy Lunchbox network was this afternoon joined by Matt James, Associate Director of BioCentre, a British think-tank focusing on emerging technologies and their ethical, social and political implications. Matt delivered a fascinating presentation, introducing the work of BioCentre before focusing on ‘NBIC’; Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science, and what these emerging technologies might mean for human existence in the future.

The Centre was originally established in 1984 in response to public concern over fresh challenges to ethics and policy resulting from emerging technologies. BioCentre is a cross disciplinary network of scientists, physicians, ethicists, lawyers, researchers and others, who share a common concern that, in welcoming new developments in technology, the dignity of the individual and the uniqueness of human nature is asserted from a UK, European and global perspective. The philosophy of BioCentre was summed up by Matt as wanting to see technologies contribute to a ‘hyper human’ future. He distinguished this from another school of thought in bioethics, that the exponential growth in technologies will lead to a ‘trans-human’ future by 2045: that man and machine will become one. Instead, BioCentre promote the idea that technologies can help to maximise human life, bringing tremendous advantages and benefits.

Of the discussion points raised during the presentation, two had probably the most relevance to ecology: the development of nanotechnology and synthetic biology. The consequences of the release of nanoparticles into the environment are poorly known. A growing number of laundry products and items of clothing now incorporate nano-silver as a microbicide to enhance cleaning but the implications of the introduction of this material into water courses are poorly understood, for example. Synthetic biology – at its most extreme the creation of new organisms in the laboratory – could have tremendous implications for ecosystems. Matt characterised these as creating new life for “bio terror and bio error”; what happens if these life forms are released into the environment maliciously or otherwise?

Although many of the developments highlighted by Matt seem to belong to the realms of science fiction he assured us that these were, or were likely to become, science fact, raising key questions for ethicists to answer. As robots are developed and become increasingly more sophisticated will society need a robot ethic, governing how robots are treated and how humans interact with them? Debates will rage over whether we want to have an ‘off switch’ for our robot companions or whether we wish to see them interact with us as other humans would, without these controls. The development of ‘e-carers’ in Japan, substituting for absent family members, may raise such issues, for example.

A key area of controversy, featuring heavily in the media last year, is the development of cognitive-enhancing drugs. Ritalin is one such drug, being used to treat the 4 – 10% of the world’s children who suffer with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Ritalin is also the most stolen drug from those prescribed it amongst students however, used to boost the performance of scholars at universities. Interesting questions are raised for both children and adults: when does the use of this and other cognitive enhancing drugs in children move from being a helpful medication to a form of social control? What are the implications for society if students, shift-workers, soldiers and others who might use these drugs to stay alert and active for longer increasingly depend on them; will we move to a ’24/7 society’ and what might this mean?

Overall, this was a fascinating and wide-ranging presentation and discussion session which gave many of those present the opportunity to consider issues outside of our usual realm of experience. BioCentre works closely with the Horizon Scanning Centre within the Government’s Foresight programme, alerting policy-makers to these emerging issues. Engaging the wider policy community and society at large with these developments will take time but is an essential step in ensuring debate and proper consideration of their ethical implications, and steps which may need to be taken to regulate their use.

Policy Lunchbox is a joint initiative between the Biochemical Society and the British Ecological Society. Throughout the year, a series of lunchtime events are held which bring together guest speakers with those who work in science policy. Our next event will be on Wednesday 3rd March, where we will be joined by Annette Williams, Director of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology.