As it becomes possible to integrate artificial parts into a person, will the result be a monstrous hybridization or a deeper understanding of what it means to be human?

By Sidney Perkowitz
Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics

If you saw the Steven Spielberg movie A. I., you probably remember the wrenching scene where David, a near-perfect robot version of a cute little boy, is abandoned by his adoptive human mother. Although she knows that David is a machine that only pretends to eat and never sleeps, the robot looks and acts sufficiently childlike to engage her emotions. David is an example of how robots can elicit human responses as these machines become more like people. Other films show the opposite process, where humans become more machine-like. A prime example is the 1987 cult film RoboCop in which a cop named Alex Murphy, killed in the line of duty, has his brain and personality resurrected within a massive steel body. The result is a hybrid man-machine whose physical abilities far exceed human limits but who retains human emotions.

You might dismiss such tales as sheer fantasy, but in our technological age, science fiction has an uncanny way of becoming real. These films and others (for example, I, Robot, starring Will Smith and based on the famous stories by Isaac Asimov) show where real-life robotic and bionic technology is headed. Certainly, robots are becoming more human-like. From ASIMO, a robot made by the Honda Corporation that walks with cocky arm-swinging confidence, to Kismet, an MIT robot that responds to praise and scolding like a young child, to QRIO, a SONY creation that memorizes your face and greets you by name, attributes once characteristic only of living people are now being replicated by machines.

Even more important is the process whereby people are becoming more machine-like, more like bionic beings and cyborgs. This progression began early in history, first in mythological tales about bionic creatures, and then, starting with the ancient Greeks, with the construction of actual replacements for missing or damaged body parts. Initially these were crude devices like wooden peg legs and iron hooks instead of hands. Now we have a sophisticated array of parts and devices implanted, by one estimate, in 8 to 10 percent of the U. S. population, about 25 million people.

Many bionic additions are cosmetic, such as breast implants; others are functional and even life-saving, from dental implants set into the jaws, and artificial legs that are good enough for athletic competition, to implanted electronic devices that keep the heart beating properly, and artificial hearts themselves.

Even more striking are implants that go beyond physical replacement to connect with a person’s neural system or brain. Most prevalent is the cochlear implant, an electronic device that is inserted into the inner ear of a deaf person to restore hearing, at least partially. Although not yet commercially available, even more ambitious projects are in the works, such as neural implants to restore vision to blind people. There are many questions about these approaches, none of which has yet provided anything remotely as good as natural vision; however, they illustrate the possibilities that arise once the brain can be connected to a device through a brain-machine interface (BMI). For instance, an artificial limb could be placed under direct control of the brain or a paralyzed person could use a BMI to control an external device such as a robot limb or a vehicle.

Contemplating human-machine combinations might make you uncomfortable. Despite the long history of replacement body parts, when the association becomes too intimate–as in linking to the brain, the seat of one’s very mind and personhood–it may seem unnatural. But compared to wondrous outcomes such as giving a paralyzed person the precious ability to communicate, any discomfort at the thought of a person-machine hybrid seems insignificant.

Other potentially troubling issues arise, however, when we combine human and machine. There may be undesirable side effects peculiar to this new technology. For instance, there have been reports that children with certain types of cochlear implants are at increased risk to develop meningitis. A more subtle effect is a sense of strangeness or isolation. A number of cochlear implantees call the quality of the sounds they hear “robotic.” Quite unexpectedly, some also report that rather than feeling they have entered a world from which they had been excluded, they end up alienated both from deaf people and those who can hear, without full membership in either community.

Then there is the question of end use. Although much current research in bionics is motivated by medical applications, a good deal of the work in the U.S. is sponsored by the Department of Defense, which wants to make soldiers more effective through such means as direct neural control of weaponry. A high-tech military where a soldier’s fighting ability is multiplied through robotic or bionic means has appeal because it puts machines rather than people in harm’s way, but it could also promote the dangerous belief that wars can be fought at little or no human cost.

Another issue is the question of access. If an artificial heart can preserve or extend a person’s life, or (to become more speculative) if a neural chip can enhance a person’s mental capacity, who should have first crack at these incredible benefits, which are likely to be extremely expensive?

Finally, consider this scenario: suppose it becomes possible to routinely integrate artificial parts into a person–for instance, replacing a gangrenous leg with a plastic one operating under neural control. The resulting bionic human is, of course, still a person in every way, as would be true even for more extensive physical changes such as replacing several limbs or bodily organs. But what if a person’s injured brain is repaired with a silicon chip or his entire brain is transferred into an artificial body? Is he still a person in every legal, moral, and spiritual sense, although perhaps a different one from who he was before? Would we need to redefine the word “human”?

This last scenario may seem far-fetched or at least a long way off, but it’s never too early to start thinking about how new technology is likely to affect people. The current debate about biological cloning and stem cell research shows how essential it is to understand and discuss technology that may change human expectations. I’m optimistic about where bionics will take us, because I have seen what the technology can do. I’m also influenced by RoboCop. The cyborg in that film, who began as Alex Murphy, struggles with his mixed nature. His machine attributes make him an extraordinary “good cop,” but he must also cope with the loneliness of separation from his family and from humanity. Yet at the end of the story he comes to terms with his duality, for when a bystander asks this intimidating steel figure “What’s your name?,” RoboCop answers “Murphy,” and so proclaims his essential human spirit.

My hope is that the merging of human and machine will lead not to some kind of monstrous hybridization but to a better future for humanity and to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.




© 2005 Emory University