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Are we going to turn into machines?

If you have a part of your body replaced—a knee, a shoulder, a hip socket—are you less human? Currently, no one thinks that. So let’s extend it a little: if you have an organ replaced from a donor, are you still you? Currently most people think so (with gratitude for your donor of course). Now, let’s ask this current medical possibility: if you have a heart valve replaced with a part from a pig or cow, are you still you, still all human? It’s a psychological question many heart patients have had to grapple with. Obviously, the answer is yes. Modified, but yes, you are still you.

Now comes the hard part. Let’s say that instead of that donor part, or replacement knee, you have the chance to have a tailor-made biologically grown or 3-d printed replica part, a replica made from your own DNA. That isn’t really you, but a clone of you, so is it really you? If that’s a new heart, lung, liver, kidney, pancreas... grown from your cells into a replacement part... is the new you really you? On the one hand, your brain and consciousness grew up with the old part, understood it, watched it fail, and need to be replaced. Then, suddenly, there’s a new, completely perfectly new part. How will your memory, your connection in the brain’s neurons deal with this replacement that has no evolutionary pathway to understanding? Sure, in thinking about it, you’ll be cool, but will your brain accept that it is really you/yours?

People having transplanted organs report feeling estranged from their new replacements. They get used to it, in time. The brain adapts, accepts. But what happens when that replica is enhanced, enhanced beyond what the brain grew up to manage, feed, command? If the replacement heart is better at pumping, better at supplying fresh oxygenated blood, will the brain be able to control function? In gene therapy currently, the question is not whether they can rejuvenate genes, turn them back on, to perform functions such as fighting specific forms of cancer, the question quickly becomes how many can they safely turn on before the body and brain become overloaded and the empowered genes have no safety control and actually cure the cancer while killing the patient?

Now, what happens when replicas, say two grown lower limbs for a double amputee, are enhanced to the point that the recipient can leap 6’ straight up? Think this is unlikely? Already replacement parts are permitting physical strengths and power previously unknown by the recipient. Some people call these recipients cyborgs (though they do not call themselves that). But when you see some of the recent electronic aids to linked-brain processing, for instance trials under way for allow the brain to control prosthetics as if they were better than original legs, hands, arms... the question becomes challenging. It’s like power steering in a car; your control of the direction of the car is augmented but with physical feed-back. But when that power steering becomes “by-wire” meaning there is no physical connection between the steering wheel and the tires, just electric motors mimicking your commands... do you really still control the car?

As human replacement parts become increasingly printed, grown, implanted, linked directly up to the brain, and enhanced in the process, at some point people may become cyborgs in reality — but that does not mean their brains have the evolutionary or years of learning (growing up) to be able to fully control the implications or emotions of those enhancements. So far, the notion of cyborgs becoming anti-social may not be a reality but that does not mean everyone will be able to adapt to a new world of super-human replacements.

 

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.