Entering the Bionic Age: Why Be You, When You Can Be New?


A whimsical animated children’s movie that came out in 2005 may be one of the most prophetic films of our time.

Robots, featuring the voice talents of Robin Williams and Ewan McGregor, is the story of Rodney Copperbottom, a young robot adept at building and fixing things. He goes to the big city to meet his idol, the head of Bigweld Industries, Mr. Bigweld.

What Rodney finds at Bigweld Industries is a change of management and a change of direction. The company will no longer be making replacement parts for robots. Instead, they will only be making new shiny “upgrades” for those robots that can afford them. The new motto for Bigweld Industries becomes: “Why be you, when you can be new?”

The robots who could not afford these new upgrades were left without any options for repair. As they broke down, they were relegated to the junk heap and eventually melted down.

How is a movie about robot spare parts and upgrades prophetic?

Consider a recent story in The New York Times about a new hearing aid that is controlled by an iPhone app. The story begins with a 65-year-old hearing-impaired man going into a noisy night club.

He is able to adjust his hearing aids with his iPhone so that he can carry on a conversation in the middle of a torrent of background noise.  The new hearing aids that can be fine-tuned for every environment are a great advancement for those with hearing loss, but the Times story does not stop with the therapeutic benefits. The author of the piece tried the hearing aid for himself. He wrote:

“Wearing these hearing aids was like giving my ears a software upgrade. For the first time, I had fine-grain control over my acoustic environment, the sort of bionic capability I never realized I had craved. I’m 35, and I have normal hearing. But if I could, I’d wear these hearing aids all the time.”

The author’s glowing endorsement included the “slight exaggeration” that these advanced hearing aids are “better than the ears most of us were born with.” The title of the piece is “Conjuring Images of a Bionic Future.”

Lately, more attempts at augmenting the human body are coming to light. Last year, Motorola applied for a patent for a throat tattoo that can act as a microphone for many different devices. Also in 2013, a group of researchers started a crowdfunded project that will attempt to augment human vision into the infrared range using dietary supplementation. The researchers hope to use this study as a “proof of concept to continue working on a more long-term modification to human vision that doesn’t rely on dietary restrictions/supplementation.”

Hearing aids, tattoos and dietary supplementation are pretty innocuous ways to enhance human abilities. But what if small augmentations lead to more invasive “upgrades”? How long before the wallet becomes obsolete, replaced by a radio-frequency ID tag implanted in the body that contains all of our personal information?

What happens when humans are no longer content to hold their cellphones in their hands and instead want them integrated into their bodies? How long before digital eyes and bionic limbs developed for the disabled are adopted by the able-bodied?

Transhumanists are proponents of upgrading humanity by integrating technology into our bodies. They often argue that it is just the natural progression of the human use of tools. They insist that a cellphone embedded in the body is no different than one held in the hand.

But is it? Consider another recent film, the 2012 remake of Total Recall. In this dystopian tale, Douglas Quaid is being chased by a group intent on killing him. He realizes he is being tracked by the phone that is inside his hand. In a particularly gruesome scene, he takes a knife and cuts it out.

When T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T need to have a surgeon on staff to upgrade your cellphone, a line has been crossed. These are no longer tools; they have become human enhancements.

So why not enhance? Why shouldn’t humans pluck out their perfectly good eyes and replace them with digital cameras that can take pictures with a blink, zoom in and out and see well beyond the visible spectrum? Why not chop off healthy arms and legs and replace them with bionic limbs that let us throw farther and run faster than we ever imagined? Why not have neural implants that bring the Internet straight to our brains?

Why be you, when you can be new?

These seem like great advances in an age where science dominates, but altering the nature of humanity with technology will have major pitfalls.

Many people are not aware that medical devices like insulin pumps and pacemakers can be hacked. Such activity was made famous by Barnaby Jack, a New Zealand man who demonstrated to an audience that he could wirelessly hack an insulin pump from 300 feet away.  He was able to make the insulin pump deliver a lethal dose to a mannequin. He also demonstrated the ability to hack a pacemaker.

Jack used his hacker skills to expose risks in these critical medical devices. His work raises serious concerns about bad guys’ ability to wirelessly control medical implants. In the case of pacemakers and insulin pumps, these devices are needed for medical reasons.

But transhumanists want technological devices for otherwise healthy bodies: neural implants, nanobots, “cyber brains” and bionic limbs — all integrated into our organic systems. Such devices would expose healthy bodies to cyber attacks. Do we really trust companies to make their products “hack-proof”?

Then, there is the reality that many will not be able to afford “upgrades.” As in the movie Robots, will those humans who do not have access to radical human enhancements be relegated to the junk heap, as second-class citizens unable to compete with the augmented elite?

Finally, can man-made technology really improve on God’s design? What happens when we remove or alter significant portions of our bodies, only to realize that what God gave us was not only superior in design, but also has a built-in maintenance program?

This reality is echoed in a comment to the Times piece on advanced hearing aids:

“You don’t have to be religious to know that what we were born with is infinitely superior to any hearing-aid technology developed to date. ... Hearing aids cannot restore what you cannot hear anymore. ... It’s not the same — let alone better.”

The Church has been clear that any human genetic engineering has to be therapeutic in nature and aimed at “the natural development of the human being” (“Charter for Health Care Workers,” 13). I imagine the Church will say the same about invasive technologies like digital eyes and artificial limbs if they become available to the already healthy. These advances are appropriate for those with disabilities, in an attempt to restore function, but not for the able-bodied.

In Robots, Bigweld Industries’ plan for “upgrades” was thwarted, and all robots rejoiced in their imperfect uniqueness. Will society embrace the wisdom found in this animated film? Or will we be seduced by the promises of human augmentation?

It is time for Catholics to discuss these technological breakthroughs with our children and put them into proper context.

God made us in his image. That is an image to be cherished, not radically altered. The next generation of the faithful need to reject Bigweld Industries’ motto and instead ask, “Why be new, when you can be you?”

Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology. She writes about bioethics at her blog, Mary Meets Dolly.

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