This article was taken from the September 2013 issue of Wired magazine. Be the first to read Wired’s articles in print before they’re posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online.
If a bionic hand let you type ten times as fast and looked twice as cool as your healthy, natural hand, would you choose to amputate it to accommodate the new gadget?
I was born without my lower left arm, a rare congenital condition called dysmelia. Over the course of my life, I have been fitted with various prostheses with which I’ve had a love/hate relationship. This changed when I received an advanced bionic one in 2009. Until then my prostheses relied on a single electric motor to open and close, and they were fixed in a pinch-grip position. They helped tying my shoelaces, but their awkward posture was augmented by the flesh-coloured cosmetic glove that looked anything but natural. I tried my best to hide my prostheses from stares in public.
In 2009, I was fitted with an i-limb, a fully articulated hand with individually powered fingers mimicking a natural grip. The newest version comes with an iOS app that connects to the hand via Bluetooth — look for biosim on the App Store. Its functionality and its beautiful design mean I wear it with pride.
With my personal history and background in social psychology, I was cast to present a Channel 4 documentary exploring the state of bionic tech. In How to Build a Bionic Man, broadcast in February, I met scientists all over the world working on artificial limbs and organs that may surpass their natural counterparts in terms of functionality. Although these are fascinating developments, ethical questions are looming.
First of all, who is entitled to prostheses that have the price-tag of a luxury car? Soldiers who lose limbs while serving get the latest technology, but civilians who lose an arm in a car accident only receive my pre-2009 version through their insurance. A 14-year-old one-armed boy who had his application for an i-limb turned down by the NHS recently ended up offering the surface of his prosthesis as advertising space to a Formula 1 racing team to obtain funding. Is that fair? What’s the right way to allocate this gear?
Furthermore, what happens if a bionic hand becomes available that lets you type more rapidly? Or a leg that lets you run faster? Would you choose to replace a healthy limb with a bionic one? Should that be allowed? Currently, artificial limbs are a niche market because they cater to those few with missing limbs. If they started to appeal to the wider population, they could create their own mass market, with the resulting corporate financial interests.
Finally, augmented bodies that contain connected technology give the word hacking a new meaning. My i-limb connects to my iPhone, but my iPhone is connected to the internet. Technically, a part of my body has become hackable. As crime futurist Marc Goodman ( Wired 06.13) detailed recently, criminals have already developed a Bluetooth device that can cause portable insulin pumps used by certain diabetics to give their wearer a lethal dose. Whole new areas of cybercrime become imaginable. How do we deal with that?
I do not possess the answers to these questions, but I believe that it is important to ask them now, before bionic technology is widely adopted. If we have a conversation around these issues, maybe we can find the (political?) guidelines that ensure we reap the benefits of bionic technology in a world where those in need of prostheses get a chance to experience the quality of life that an advanced bionic limb brings — just as I have.
Bertolt Meyer (@myo) is a social psychologist at the University of Zurich