The new movie Alita: Battle Angel has once again drawn our attention to the idea of cyborgs: machine-human hybrids. And as we become increasingly reliant on machines and devices to function normally in our daily lives, computer science and engineering expert Robin R Murphy of Texas A&M University in the US reminds us of the gap between the law and our capacity to augment our bodies and minds.
The main character of Alita: Battle Angel is a cyborg with an entirely mechanical body housing a biological brain. While some of the elements of the movie are farfetched, many are startlingly plausible.
Writing in the journal Science Robotics, Murphy argues that works of science fiction such Alita and antecedents stretching all the way back to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Man Who Was Used Up, first published in 1839, have done much to anticipate the technological developments and trends of our slow transformation into cyborgs. However, she adds, they have done little to predict many of the ethical and legal complications that will accompany them.
So, what exactly is a cyborg? The word itself is a portmanteau of “cybernetics” and “organism” and was first coined by the Austrian scientist and musician Manfred Clynes in 1960 in a paper written with the American psychologist Nathan Kline. Their article inspired NASA in 1963 to investigate the possibility of modifying human beings for extended travel in outer space, to produce a human-machine hybrid system.
Beyond space travel, the idea has come to mean many things, ranging from technological interventions in the human body to our increasing cognitive reliance on various devices.
Smart phones, for example, might represent part of the “extended mind”, a web of external entities into which we offload our minds’ content. Our contacts, appointments and memory triggers now reside outside of our skulls. There is a growing sense of need, rather than want, when it comes to our smart phones, and our societies increasingly expect us to rely on them for everyday activities, such as banking or navigating.
Steve Mann, a computer scientist at the University of Toronto, Canada and often dubbed the father of “wearable computing’’, defines a cyborg as “person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device”.
It is plainly a wide definition.
Most current cyborgs have machine interventions that serve a medical purpose, but increasingly there are those, known as transhumanists, that are pushing for the right to upgrade their bodies if technological counterparts supersede the capacities of the flesh.
But the law currently makes a distinction between the person and the device, according rights to the former, but not the latter. How is this going to work if the devices become part of our bodies? Will that make our bodies a patchwork of entities with different rights?
Even though the cyborg age is in its infancy, the real-world legal complications are starting to become visible.
Neil Harbisson, who a fascinating 2014 Brookings Institution report labels as a “cyborg activist”, has attached an electronic antenna, called an “eyeborg“, to his skull to allow him to overcome a severe form of colour blindness.
However, he had to fight the British government to be allowed to have the antenna in his passport photograph, a fight he won, making him the world’s first legally recognised cyborg.
In 2012 he was attacked by police at a demonstration in Barcelona as they mistakenly thought he was filming them, and they tried to physically remove the surgically attached device from his head, damaging it in the process. Harbisson sees this as assault rather than property damage, as the device is part of his everyday life and is “always on”. Where the law stands on this divide is less than clear.
In 2009 an airline destroyed the powered mobility assistance device used by a quadriplegic Vietnam veteran, causing him to spend eleven months in bed until a new device was built. The airline offered minimal recompense on the grounds that they damaged the device rather than the customer.
Clearly here the boundary between man and machine is inherently unstable and the law, once again, has not caught up with the problematic shifting lines that cyborgs represent.
In her Science Robotics essay, Murphy also ponders would “a person with embedded earbuds, like Rich Lee, or a USB drive in a prosthetic finger, like Jerry Jalava, be denied employment due to fears of corporate espionage?”
Similarly, Benjamin Wittes and Jane Chong of the Brookings Institution note that in 2004, 160 Mexican federal prosecutors and investigators had RFID chips implanted in their bodies in order to give them access to certain restricted areas.
“Ostensibly a security measure, the chips ensured certainty as to who accessed sensitive data and when, but also raise questions about when an individual may be compelled to undergo modification,” they wrote, “perhaps as a condition of sensitive employment, or perhaps for other, murkier reasons.”
Will there be discrimination and stigma for those who choose augmentations based on their function, rather than looking like the body part it replaces? Will conspicuous technology make cyborgs targets?
There are already ominous signs. Steve Mann has a camera attached to his skull, called an EyeTap¸ that allows him to access augmented reality technology, allowing him to overlay internet data on the real world. He has this technology because he wants to, rather than for a medical purpose.
In 2012 he was attacked by a McDonald’s employee, which the press described as perhaps the world’s first anti-cyborg hate crime.
Technologies like the EyeTap do raise serious questions about privacy. Are cyborgs free to record video feed wherever they go? Do the data-capture capacities of various augmentations infringe the right to privacy of others?
Can it be co-opted by the state as part of surveillance strategies? Do these data-capture capacities make cyborgs more subject to surveillance than the unmodified? Knowing the GPS coordinates of a device is the same as tracking the person, after all.
There are far more questions than answers. Should modified humans be allowed to compete against the unmodified in various sports and games, wonders Murphy? Will people be bound by End User License Agreements, which will place legal restrictions on what they can do with a device that has become part of their body? Where do we stop, and the technologies begin?
As the cyborg age come into its own, these are questions that society and its lawmakers will need to address with urgency.
Stephen Fleischfresser is a lecturer at the University of Melbourne's Trinity College and holds a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.