The article in the url below raises some interesting and challenging questions at the intersection of technology and ethics. In particular, it examines how machines are increasingly becoming a part of how we alleviate various human conditions and, as such, how the law needs to recognize and accommodate these changes. For example:
"Is a prosthetic legally part of your body? When is it appropriate to amputate a limb and replace it with a robotic one? What are the legal rights of a person with 'locked in' syndrome who communicates via a brain-computer interface? Do brain implants and body-enhancement devices require changes to the definition of disability?"
In response to rapidly evolving technology, a research project has been established in Europe to address some of these questions and is due to report by 2014:
"The RoboLaw project is an effort to anticipate such quandaries and work out where and how legal frameworks might need to be changed as the technology of bionics and neural interfaces improves. … it brings together experts from engineering, law, regulation, philosophy and human enhancement."
But, these questions are not part of some academic exercise that politicians will have to go through in crafting future laws, they are real problems that judges and companies are dealing with in court today:
"If you are dependent on a robotic wheelchair for mobility, for example, does the wheelchair count as part of your body? Linda MacDonald Glenn, an American lawyer and bioethicist, thinks it does. Ms Glenn (who is not involved in the RoboLaw project) persuaded an initially sceptical insurance firm that a 'mobility assistance device' damaged by airline staff was more than her client's personal property, it was an extension of his physical body. The airline settled out of court."
Even more conceptually challenging is dealing with questions around how robotics and technology alter our understanding of what it means to be human:
"To what extent is [our humanity] defined by having a body of a particular shape, or by cultural factors? Technologies such as exoskeletons that provide increased strength and implants that improve memory will put both definitions under pressure. Human-enhancement researchers … are considering future technologies, such as embedded devices that enhance the senses or add new ones, and implants that improve memory or allow messages to be sent or devices to be controlled using thought alone. Such devices might initially be used to overcome disability, but could also be used to augment and increase the performance of the able-bodied."
The fields generated at the intersection of technology and ethics (e.g., bioethics, nanotechnology) are a minefield that we are only just beginning to wrap our minds around. And, as usual, the market is far ahead of the law, which is struggling to keep pace with both the growing complexity and speed of change.
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September 1, 2012
The Economist Technology Quarterly