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A Transhuman Conundrum: Brain-Machine Interfaces

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: Everyone’s always told you to relax. You’re too high-strung. You just have so much anxiety about everything. So why not get yourself a shiny new exocortex. A little computer that you can wear behind your ear. It plugs into your brain and helps you have all those fantastic personality traits you’ve always wanted. Want to be funnier? Tap into a repository of jokes and anecdotes. Have a better memory? Storage capacity is not a problem. Instantly speak a foreign language? Sure! Why not even a constructed one?

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Is This Really Possible?

The exocortex--or even the ability to jack your brain into a computer to enhance it--is still a long way away. But it’s not completely impossible. We’re already experimenting with it on the small scale. You can already buy a whole slew of toys that claim to be operated by your brain (Mattel’s Mindflex games let you use your mind to direct a ball through a maze). UC Berkeley's Carmena Lab is developing techniques to use the brain to manipulate mechanical devices. And, of course, there’s Obama’s infamous brain map initiative--who knows what will come from that. Applications today work in one direction--from brain to device--but two-way connections, such as memory implants, are in the works.

The Ethical Conundrum

Your new exocortex is going to help you with high level thinking. It could make you a better student or a better all around person. But it could also significantly change (or even replace) your personality. You’re going to have to decide how far you want to go. Just how different are you going to end up being after all is said and done? You’re also going to have to take into account how your friends and family are going to react to these changes. At the same time, your boss might consider you to be the ultimate employee--truly dedicated to being the best at your job that you can be.

What the Ethicists Say

Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, writes in his paper Dignity and Enhancement, that it’s important to remember how enhancements like hooking our brains into a computer will ultimately affect our dignity:

"A trait acquired through the deliberate employment of some enhancement technology could be more authentically ours than a trait that we possessed from birth or that developed in us independently of our own agency. Could it be that not only the person who has acquired a trait through personal growth and experience, but also one who has acquired it by choosing to make use of some enhancement technology, may possess that trait more authentically than the person who just happens to have the trait by default? Holding other things constant – such as the permanency of the trait, and its degree of integration and harmonization with other traits possessed by the person – this would indeed seem to be the case."

So what say you? Is adding a new brain onto our old brain a great way to get ahead in the world? Or is it unfair (or just plain creepy) to modify parts of your personality you’d otherwise have no control over? Discuss!