No time like the present to discuss cyborg rightsS

Though creatures like the Terminator are still scifi dreams, cyborgs already exist in real life. Millions of people use mechanical implants to improve their lives. That opens up urgent questions about cyborg rights, particularly in athletics.

Dr. Roger Clarke, visiting professor at the Australian National University, is using his keynote speech at this week's IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society to discuss what he sees as the most crucial issues in the field of cyborg rights. Using a term like "cyborg" may make it seem as though Clarke is engaging in an abstract thought experiment for far future ethics, but he argues the recent advances in mechanical and electromechanical implants makes this very much a topic for the here and now.

As he sees it, anything that gives humans abilities they would otherwise lack counts as a form of "cyborgization." Early pacemakers, basic prostheses*, and procedures like renal dialysis kicked off the trend, but the types of possible implants have hugely diversified in recent years, extending to restoring sight, hearing, and even function in the neural system. He sees all of this as having major implications for human rights, and perhaps no recent example illustrates this better than the case of South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, pictured above.

Pistorius is a double amputee who uses prosthetic legs made of carbon fiber and titanium to compete in track events. He holds the Paralympic records in the 100, 200, and 400 meter events, and has since began competing against able-bodied athletes. These efforts have met with resistance from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body for all major athletic events. They claimed Pistorius should not be allowed to compete in the Olympic or Commonwealth games because his legs were mechanically superior to those of his able-bodied competitors, giving him an unfair advantage.

Clarke articulates this issue in terms of competing human rights:

"He is making a claim that he has a right to compete against able-bodied athletes in the same races and, in the event that he comes first, second or third, be awarded the appropriate ribbon or medal. The IAAF is claiming in effect that either, no he doesn't have that right, or the rights of able-bodied athletes to not have to compete against enhanced humans trumps his rights."

Clarke sees how this argument could cut both ways, as able-bodied athletes might seek the right to use performance-enhancing technology (which, for their disabled counterparts, is performance-enabling) in races. After all, as Clarke points out, although the average times in races using leg prostheses are slower than those using flesh-and-blood legs, wheelchair races often have faster times than either.

If Pistorius has the right to compete with able-bodied athletes regardless of any theoretical mechanical advantage, should wheelchair races also be opened up to all competitors? Clarke doesn't offer an immediate answer, but he argues it's better to hash these questions out now than at a time when technology has progressed so far that the lines have become irrevocably blurred.

Although his wheelchair scenario might seem a bit far-fetched, other aids for the purpose of augmenting normal functions are more clearly within the realm of possibility. Cochlear implants could go from providing the deaf an approximation of normal hearing to boosting those with properly functioning ears to almost superhuman levels. Various retinal implants could allow people to record and send everything they observe without anyone else realize what they're doing.

These possibilities open up a number of question, such as whether people have the right to these implants when a pressing need for them does not exist, and whether people have the right to augment themselves in ways that could have privacy implications for others. One of the thorniest issues is whether people have the right to refuse implants, such as scenarios in which prisoners are given chips to restrict and monitor their movement.

Clarke sums up what cyborgization means for human rights:

"People who are using prostheses to recover lost capabilities will seek to protect their existing rights. People who have lost capabilities but have not yet got the relevant prostheses will seek the right to have them. Enhanced humans will seek additional rights, to go with the additional capabilities that they have."

There are no clear answers yet for how to navigate these complex ethical debates, but Clarke does offer at least one concrete solution: all engineers and developers of prostheses and implants must consider the broader implications of their technologies and make these potential consequences clear to various institutions before sending them to market.

*This means, by Clarke's logic, that the pirate ships of old were full of cyborgs, what with all the hooks and peg legs. You have no idea how hard I had to fight to resist the urge to turn this post into a discussion of cyborg pirates.

[ABC Science]