I recently had the pleasure to be invited to give a talk at the wonderfully niche Gikii conference, organised by Andres Guadamuz (aka Technollama) and Lillian Edwards in Berlin this year. The event was hosted by the Alexander von Humboldt Centre for Internet and Society (HIIG), and covered topics such as monetising celebrity gut flora, monkeys as copyright holders, privacy in the Marvel universe and a number of questions about the urge to connect everything to the Internet of Things. Below you will find a brief overview of my paper, as well as the slides from the presentation.
Do Cyborgs Dream of Electric Lawsuits? – Ethico-Legal Challenges of the Augmented Human
There has been a relatively large amount of discussion, both at academic as well as journalistic level, regarding the near-future implications of artificial prostheses, implantable smart technologies (ISTs), and of innovations in genetics and biotechnology. In our midst already we have people such as Neil Harbisson, the ‘cyborg activist’ and co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation, who hears colour by virtue of an antenna implanted in his skull. Similarly, we have the case of the ‘Eyeborg’, Rob Spence, a one eyed filmmaker who has a prosthetic eye with an embedded wireless video camera. There is growing support for techno-progressive and transhumanist trends such as biohacking and the biopunk movement, with more and more people augmenting their bodies by small but significant DIY methods. Add these developments to the progress made in the field of traditional prosthetics as well as the trend towards wearable technology, as one has to accept it – the cyborgs are coming.
Whilst discussions regarding the ethics of human augmentation or enhancement abound, cases such as Harbisson and Spence’s, amongst others, have shed some light on the legal implications of such developments, be it official recognition, permission to ‘wear’ such augmentations, or issues of privacy and data protection. Furthermore, such cases demonstrate that prostheses and augmentations which go beyond merely corrective, and in fact enhance or even introduce new abilities, are no longer purely the realm of science-fiction, but rather a reality which to some degree will have to be dealt with by existing legal systems. Rather than discuss the rights of wrongs of such developments, or how likely they may or may not be, let us instead take these varying analyses and predictions at their word and attempt to assess how law may have to adapt to deal with the ‘augmented individual’.
The video game series Deus Ex provides an interesting pop-culture take on a near-future scenario in which society is in upheaval due to the widespread acceptance of mechanical and neurological augmentation. Interesting legal questions abound for the the nerdy lawyer who plays Deus Ex: Human Revolution and questions, for example, the legality of a clause in an employment contract which allows the protagonist’s employer to replace his limbs with augmented ones after an accident. But we need not even veer into the cyberpunk worlds of fiction to raise such questions, they are cropping up more and more: Neil Harbisson’s cyborg passport picture, Oscar Pistorius the augmented olympian, bans on Google Glass wearers, and security worries regarding the remote hacking capabilities of sub-dermal implants.
The line between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ can be difficult to define, as similarly that between ‘therapeutic’ and ‘non-therapeutic’, and these differentiations seem set to be further blurred. The law may need to adapt, through analogy or creation of new law, to the changing definition of the human body. As such, it might be time we asked; “What will be the everyday challenges to the law when dealing with the augmented human, and how might frameworks be adapted or created to accommodate these changes?”
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