Ever wanted contact lenses that can track your glucose levels? Or how about a chip in your brain that helps you with math? Games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided portray a future where augmentations like these are common and, while it may seem far-fetched, it will soon become more ordinary than you think.
But with that comes a whole host of legal issues. How will our laws change to protect both people with implants and people without? What ethical concerns will policymakers have to deal with? We spoke with experts familiar with this technology to get their predictions.
One of the most basic concerns with all new technology is how it should be regulated. When that technology is being used on — or even in — a human body, the stakes get higher, and safety issues become more complicated.
Maxwell Mehlman is a law and bioethics professor at Case Western Reserve University with experience in biomedical augmentation and enhancement. Luckily, he says, “Our existing regulatory structure both for human experimentation and for marketing approval for products or services is adequate to deal with these technologies.”
Still, it will be difficult to ensure existing laws are applied properly, since the field is so new. In order to protect consumers from rogue entrepreneurs while also allowing them to make informed decisions about their own bodies, lawmakers must learn how to adapt existing regulatory structure to fit. For example, even though in many ways they are close, Mehlman says it wouldn’t make sense to treat augmentation technology exactly like medical treatments.
Philip Hall, an international consultant on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics, says that hacking will also be a real concern. The risks posed by smart cars are a good example of what’s to come, he says: “People can take control of a car by hacking into its control system or even stealing the car.”
When it comes to wearables and implantable chips, Hall foresees that securing the technology will be a long process, and that an inevitable catastrophic event will incite “a knee-jerk reaction.” If something disastrous does happen, he believes that implants will either be banned completely or manufacturing will be tightly restricted.
The law also will have to parse who’s at fault if something goes wrong and both non-augmented and augmented people are put in danger. Amal Graafstra founded Dangerous Things, a company that sells implantable chips that act as security platforms for various devices. He has his own set of chips, implanted in his hands, that help him unlock his office, start his motorcycle, and use his smart gun. According to Graafstra, what liability will result if a crime is committed by a human with an augmented body part depends on who (or what) actually pulls the proverbial trigger.
“If the device is manufactured badly and it causes a problem with the implantee because of defective manufacturing, there’s probably some liability [on the part of the manufacturer],” he says. “But if a person uses it to encrypt all their kiddie porn and the police can’t get at it, then that’s not the manufacturer’s fault, that’s how somebody chose to use the device.”
Fritz Allhoff, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University, said similarly that generally, a company is only liable if there’s a defect with a product. But he also posits that manufacturers could approach liability in a way that mimics the strategy taken by some smart car manufacturers, who are so confident in their products that they choose to absorb the liability. Still, it’s not yet clear whether companies will be willing to shoulder that kind of culpability. That largely depends on how much potential damage could be caused by this technology.
Allhoff also explains that this technology raises concerns over non-augmented people being put at a disadvantage. Because it is expensive, it could create “two-tier societies where some people have access to the technologies and others don’t,” he says. A similar issue could arise with competitions and sporting events. While he says that even now the wealthy have access to luxury goods like fancy cars, the question is different when it comes to health and safety. It remains to be seen whether augmentations will be classified as a luxury or a necessity.
On the other hand, Mehlman thinks these augmentations could actually level the playing field. For example, “An Adderall pill before an exam is a whole lot cheaper than a year of tutoring.” By the same token, he imagines that some of these technologies will actually let people without resources gain an edge. Depending on what they’re used for, governments could even try making these technologies available to everyone. “Wouldn’t you want your cancer researcher to have every advantage, so that she can come upon a cure as quickly as possible?” he says. “Wouldn’t you want your disaster rescuer to be as strong as possible?”
The above questions represent merely a drop in the bucket of potential policy issues surrounding augmented body parts. Fortunately for lawmakers, though, this isn’t completely new territory. When the time comes, they can look towards similar laws in different arenas, from mandates on wearing a seat belt to legislation around smart cars and wearables.
But it could take a long time. As Allhoff explains, as with any new technology, “The ethics and the policy lag behind the science.” Regardless, the issue won’t go away. As Allhoff and his colleagues conclude in this report, “Human enhancement ethics will be one of the most important debates in science and society [in] this brave new century.”
You can dive head first into this new technology with the video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
Nandita Raghuram is a Senior Writer at Studio@Gawker. She tweets here.