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A Transhuman Conundrum: Implantable Sensors

By Erin Biba

This week we’re taking a look at the ethics of enhancing ourselves. We’ll present you with a series of ethical conundrums brought about by entirely possible future transhuman modifications and you can argue the ethics in the comments. We’ll have to face these questions eventually, might as well get started now. Are you pro or con superhumans?

The scenario: The economy’s terrible and you just can’t land a job. Seems like everybody these days has a digital enhancement of some kind that gives them an edge. Why not get your own? Just get a few teeny tiny sensors implanted to give yourself near-prescient abilities. Choose from the ability to sense magnetic fields, electric fields, or devices that constantly monitor the ship-shapeness of your body. Let your boss wirelessly monitor your brain activity to make sure you’re concentrating on your job. And, if your gig is particularly taxing, get a pH sweat monitor to make sure you’re truly staying hydrated. There’s literally nothing these gizmos can’t sense! What do you do?

Photo credit: Flickr user pasukaru76 via Creative Commons

How Realistic is This?

There are already tons of implantable sensors on the market or in development. In fact, we’ve even rounded them up before. Right now they’re all built for medical purposes (the pacemaker has been around for decades, but there’s tech to watch tumor growth, track the health of implanted organs, and monitor blood sugar). It’s only a matter of time before these sensors branch out to a slew of different purposes and become small enough that you can have several in your body at once.

The Ethical Conundrum

Image credit: Orion Pictures

You’ll have to decide just how much insight into your personal life (and the inner workings of your very body) you want to have--and just how much of that you want to give up to your employer. You’ll also have to consider how many people will lose their jobs to you because of the extra-special abilities your fancy new sensors impart. Plus, are you going to use the tech just in your job? Or are you going to start watching your girlfriend’s heart rate for changes outside of work just because you can?

What the Ethicists Say

Because we’ve already begun to implant tiny sensors into our bodies, ethicists have been wondering about the ethics of this direction of medicine for years. In 2007, writing about The Ethical Challenges of Ubiquitous Healthcare (PDF) in the International Review of Information Ethics, Ian Brown and Andrew A. Adam said:

"How far should individuals be held directly responsible for the state of their body? Biological theories swing to and fro on how much of an individual’s state of health is determined by nature (genetics) or nurture (lifestyle) ... Who owns health information, and how restricted is access to it? … With great information comes the potential for behaviour modification. So thought Bentham and Foucault, at least. Will our bodies become our Panoptic prison, and our behaviour be dictated by health insurance limitations? Will technology gradually reshape and modify unhealthy behaviours?… The health gap between rich and poor (and the associated life expectancy gap) is already significant in many developed countries. Government responses have included suggestions to “force” the poor to take up healthier lifestyles to make up for the r economic disadvantage. More advanced healthcare is already available if one has the money. Will the development of ubiquitous technologies exacerbate this trend and if so, should the lack of availability to all prevent those who can afford it from spending their money on the greatest prize of all — a longer healthier life?"

So what say you? Is it fair game to implant sensors in ourselves that give us a better view inside our own bodies and the world around us? Or doe these near-prescient abilities create an unfair advantage in the job market? Discuss!