MadSci Network: General Biology

Re: Is bionics ethical to use on humans if it can be more effective than human?

Date: Wed Sep 10 09:54:41 2008
Posted By: Art Anderson, Senior Scientist in Immunology and Pathology at USAMRIID
Area of science: General Biology
ID: 1221049627.Gb


Your question intrigues me. On the surface you ask for an opinion regarding "whether or not use of bionics in humans would be ethical" but your question has more global ramifications.

First of all, "Bionics" has become a buzz word and if you Google just that word you will be surprised, or maybe not surprised, to find an enormous number of sites speaking of bionics but meaning very different things.

Wikipedia defines bionics as: "Bionics (also known as biomimetics, biognosis, biomimicry, or bionical creativity engineering) is the application of biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology. The word "bionic" was coined by Jack E. Steele in 1958, possibly originating from the Greek word "âßïí", pronounced "bion", meaning "unit of life" and the suffix -ic, meaning "like" or "in the manner of", hence "like life". Some dictionaries, however, explain the word as being formed from "biology" + "electronics"."

But, your question includes an example of use of an "intelligent" prosthesis to replace a lost arm." And then you proceed to use the term evolve (as in evolution) a bionic arm that is in some ways better than what the person was naturally endowed with. Of course, this suggesting evokes thoughts of Arnold Schwartzeneger as Robo Cop or something like that.

This idea of using medical advances to create a super race comes up again and again each time a new drug or therapy is developed. The bionic arm that you mentioned, regardless whether it had advantages, would still be inferior in many ways to having one's own arm. While technology allows some linkages to the human nervous system or musculoskeletal system so that the prosthetic user could control what the prosthesis does, that control would take time to master and it might not be as good as if the limb had never been removed. Because of this, I don't think that people would line up asking to have bionic limbs placed instead of what they were born with.

On the other hand, if a supplementary bionic attribute could be developed that would not replace what was there but would enhance its performance, then we would have an issue of global ethical proportion as you suggest.

Jonathan Moreno, a famous bioethicist and a friend of mine has published a book entitled, "Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense," on the subject of research aimed at using technology to improve the functioning of the human brain. This research may have been motivated by military objectives but it also has a place in rehabilitation medicine so the objectives are not solely military. I recommend that you read this book.

The book illustrates both the good and the evil objectives of using mind altering drugs, microchips embedded in the brain, and other modalities for aiding or controlling human thought processes.

In years past, behavioral scientists found that making free coffee (or rather caffeine containing beverages) to secretarial pools improved the speed, accuracy and precision of their typing. In a way this was “bionic” because it improved upon what was normal and it accomplished a business aim. Similarly, strong caffeine and even amphetamines were given to pilots who had to fly long distances with the idea that this would make them more alert and less likely to fall asleep. There are risks and benefits to these kinds of treatments and one has to be able make informed choices. And, even before the choices are presented the net benefits of any of these bionic treatments must be weighed against the risks.

So, getting back to people wanting to replace their healthy limbs, organs etc with a bionic version designed to be superior in certain aspects, I don’t think the advantages of the bionic limb would compensate for the loss of feeling intact, or for the numerous struggles one must make to use, remove, clean, repair and adjust to using a non-living thing to replace that part of the body that was given up. While not necessarily unethical, having bionic choices certainly will complicate people’s lives at the same time that those choices give more opportunities to accomplish what they wish.

With regard to evolution of prostheses (e.g. bionic limbs, eyes, ears etc.) to replace those structures damaged by war, accidents or disease, I feel the evolution of choices will create a net benefit over risk and the research that will take place, probably will involve persons who need such prostheses and who will be respected by being given all the information about risks and benefits, told exactly what to expect by participating in the study, have their privacy and confidentiality protected, and given compensation for any harms they may encounter by participating in the research. Before that happens the research should have been reviewed by an independent committee, comprised of people from various backgrounds including scientists or engineers that understand the technology, and who have no conflicts of interest that would interfere with their objective of protecting the subjects of the research they are reviewing.

Here are some URLs with additional information and various opinions on your topic: /tatup/071/gita07a.htm /implants.html


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