Could we all be implanted with technology? The Conversation

Posted by julian | Augmentation,Enhancement,Implanting technology,Technology | Wednesday 19 May 2010 9.30 am
Dr Mark Gasson

Following on from Dr Mark Gasson’s provocation found here. We publish the transcript of the debate that looked into issues of the social and moral impact of this technology.

The Transcript:

Mark Gasson

Right Well, I think the failure of technology that we have just witnessed there probably brings a lot of questions to people’s minds when we talk about how we are going to use technology and implant it in people as I’m suggesting to enhance humans. Really the question that I want to ask is the human body really a suitable place for a microchip?

Now in my opinion that question isn’t really hypothetical. We already have a lot of medical devices that are used in clinical settings which form intimate links with the human body and technology. So cochlea implants, or heart pacemakers, or brain stimulators which perhaps are less well known, there is an application where we actually insert an electrode into the centre of the brain and stimulate the motor region to stop the tremors of Parkinson’s disease for example, and these technologies have been shown to literally give someone’s life back. So when they have a debilitating tremor that really stops them from interacting normally at all, we can stop that and they can interact normally. So this is pretty fundamental and phenomenal technology.

What I like to explore is whether we can take that technology and use it enhance normal people. Now I would argue that really this is quite inevitable. As we start to understand how the brain works and we can interface with the brain on an intimate level, we can find ways of capitalising on this technology. So perhaps I could give you an implant that could increase your IQ for example. Or give you an implant that could give you more memory. Now is that something you’d be interested in? Well at this stage a lot of people maybe would say, “No, I wouldn’t like it, maybe it could go wrong”. Cosmetic surgery has already shown that people are willing to undergo invasive procedures in order to enhance their bodies. I would argue that in the future when we offer this sort of technology it would be unlikely that the majority of people would say ” No, it’s not the sort of thing that I would like to do”. I think a lot of people would be very open to the idea. It’s much like mobile phones for example.

When mobile phones first came along, a lot of people said, “Well we don’t really understand the health implications. They are scary. Just expensive, I don’t really want one”. Does anyone here not have a mobile phone? No-one. I didn’t have a mobile phone for quite sometime and finally became the person who just didn’t have a mobile phone and ended having to get one. The social pressures of adopting technology are there and apparent and we are aware of them. As far as the experiments that I have done recently we are looking at simple technologies to enhance healthy humans. Now RFID technology has been around for a few years and you have probably heard about it being put into pets. If your pet goes missing you can identify the pet by scanning it. This technology has come a long way.

This is the RFID technology that we are interested in using at the moment. Very small devices but they have come along way from the technology that just broadcasts a number and you can link it to a database. These are more like very simple computers. They can store information, they can manipulate information, they can set up secure communication between a reader and the device.

What I have done is implanted one in my hand. It is just under the skin here. What this has enabled me to do is to have secure access to my building at the University of Reading, it allows me to have secure access to my mobile phone so that only me, holding my mobile phone allows me to use it. With anyone else using the mobile phone, the phone can’t see the tag and therefore it wont operate. It also allows us to explore the risks of this sort of technology. As I say it has come along way and I would argue that these are simple computers like devices. What we have done is infected my device with a computer virus which means that when I go into my building at the university, it reads my tag and the system gets infected by the virus and anyone else using the system, their swipe card will get infected and the virus will spread.

No I would argue much like medical devices, like a cochlea implant the patient considers this to be part of their body. I have had this implant for over a year and I consider it to be part of my body, so the concept of my body boundaries have changed and I could argue that I have become infected by the computer virus. In the future when we are looking at more complex devices. Imagine that this type of technology will give you something like enhanced IQ or some enhanced ability. When that thing becomes infected by a virus, what are you going to do? When something is intimate in your body you just cant take it out and change it. These are very real risks with this technology.

So that’s what I’d like to discuss with you all today.

Mark Gasson Conversation

Discussion

Question

You talked about the applications for it at the University of Reading right now in terms of access to the building etc. What other kinds of applications are being developed for this sort of technology?

Mark Gasson

There is a range of different technologies that this type of device is being used for, we have to appreciate is that it is still a very simple technology and what we are showing is that it has evolved a lot over the last few years. But using them for access control or data storage and doing very simple calculations and manipulations. So very simple computational activities there is a whole range of different applications that they can be used for. At this stage the technology is still very simple, but as we exptrapolate over the next ten to fifteen years the actual applications are likely to expand exponentially.

Question

What are the implications if you get hacked or the device just fails on you and you have been relying on it for quite a while?

Mark Gasson

That is a very real risk, when it is intimately linked with the person. Such as this piece of technology that has a tiny computer inside it, we have electrodes that come out of it and actually go into the brain all this is implanted in the person. Now these devices are supported through wires. A lot of people don’t know about this technology, like heart pacemakers, don’t really know how to communicate with it, so the risks are there but people don’t exploit them. As this type of device becomes more commonplace you are exactly right and this is the point I’m trying to make that the risks are very real and people will exploit them. So yes you could hack into a device like that, we’ve shown here that you can manipulate the data in these tags in order to spread a virus around. So it is exactly that point, there are very real cases associated with this technology.

Mike Ryan

What is very interesting is that to most people this kind of implantation feels a bit foreign, over how many years would this type of technology be replaced by something that is biological. Which is actually something we swallow and ingest or actually grows on our bodies? Rather than a physical piece of metal. I mean when bio tech and computing start to merge which is supposed to be in the next 20-30 years then this is something that is perhaps more acceptable.

Mark Gasson

Yes, absolutely this is another paradigm shift in the evolution of technology. It could be 20-30-40 years, we are not really sure. With this sort of technology, what we know is that it here now. With the brain stimulator device for example, what we use now is in order to alleviate the symptoms of the disease. It may well be that it all gets replaced at some stage with a completely different technology and that is entirely possible. I would say in the next 30 years that is likely to happen.

Question (Twitter)

What happens if someone takes you over, what happens if you get hacked?

Mark Gasson

Well that’s a very good question. The sort of device of device I have is limited in the scope of damage that can be done. When we talk about devices that are intimately connected to the brain, then we start to really consider this sort of question. So someone who has that sort of device that is literally manipulating the brain in order to change the brain’s function, if we can hack into that and modify it in some way, can we in some sense start to control the person? Those devices maybe, maybe not as the technology expands it could be a very real problem. I think at the moment we are talking about technology that is limited in its scope for abuse but what we are seeing is like a few years before the internet came along and all the problems internet came with it. If we had a vision and saids in 20-30 years time if we are going to be interconnected in this type of way, perhaps the internet would have been constructed in a slightly different way to give us better protection. So what we are saying is that we need that sort of conversation know.

Question

Access to technology can be quite decisive, so I think at the moment there still people who don’t have access to basic healthcare. So this kind of chips they enhance human capacity, so I wonder what happens to the people who haven’t got the financial means to the newest model, do you think we can have it on the NHS? So I think there is a potential that we are creating a society that is divided by people who have access to the newest technology and people who haven’t got access to it. So we end up in a Brave New World ABC type people, so it is a social implication.

Mark Gasson

Absolutely there is a social implication, but that exists now. There is a lot of people who cant afford to have a mobile phone or a laptop, there is a lot of countries that don’t have access to clean water.

Response

It is true that is there, but in a way we are already accepting that we already live in a divided society and you are not concerned by that at all as a scientist? You just think you can move on.

Mark Gasson

I think you are not going to be able to stop the development of technology because these problems exist. I am very concerned about that sort of problem but what we are specifically looking at is the evolution of the technology that is happening. There are these other social implications and there are these other real problems that go with it.

Response

But that’s not your interest?

Mark Gasson

I wouldn’t say that it’s not my interest. It certainly isn’t my core research focus. We are not going to be able to stop the evolution of technology at no point are we going to say that about the WWW. There are so many people that don’t have internet access, we are not going to say stop everything and let’s sort that out first. That is plainly not going to happen.

Response

Isn’t that a poor argument though? You can’t just say because technology is going to happen let’s us just follow it through. I think that is the starting basis of all scientists’ points of view. Saying what are the implications of this on society. You started off by saying enhance your body and at that point I squirmed from the point as a layman. Why would we want our bodies enhanced in the first place? Who is giving us the opportunity to do it and I don’t want to be offered the opportunity to do it. I don’t want my neighbour to have the opportunity at a detriment to me as a neighbour and I think that is a starting point for a talk. Secondly pets don’t have pockets and the integration of you piece of metal into the body, I’m just wondering beyond the enhancement element. With regard to tagging, why can’t we just have it in our pocket rather than having it embedded in our bodies?

Mark Gasson

Sure, absolutely we could. What we are looking at, is ultimately a point of convergence between the sort of simple of technologies that are implantable, that we can use now and the sort of medical technologies that are used in a clinical setting. At some point there will be a convergence between being able to use these medical technologies in order to enhance normal healthy people. What we are trying do is to start the discussion and show we are moving towards this. If we just say, “Oh we’ll just be able to carry it in our pocket, I have a computer we can put it there”, that’s fine, but there are these technologies which are implanted and there are risks associated with them and there is a direction in which this research is moving. So much like 200-300 years ago I talked about being able to talk about someone in China just by standing here, I would be dragged out and burnt as a witch or something. What actually happened is that we all have mobile phones and do exactly that and take it all for granted. We want to do is start the discussion so we are not caught by surprise as it where, when all of a sudden when we take this technology that already gets implanted into the brain and we can enhance someone’s memory or IQ and then that opportunity is there and exploited. We need to start the discussion earlier and this is what we are trying to encourage.

Response

And this gentleman’s point as a starting point for social implications?

Mark Gasson

I think it is a very valid point. We have to be careful that there is a lot of research done by scientists as their core focus. There are these social implications that go along with it. I think it would be unfair to say, why are we talking about enhancement when we have got these problems already. If we wind back a bit, why did you buy a mobile phone? If you think it is so much of a problem then why did you become part of the problem, and adopted all this technology when there is this divide growing and growing already? So while scientists do have to be acutely aware of these problems, it’s is perhaps easy to load the burden on the scientist so basically as we are actively researching this, but these problems are being propagated by the technology being adopted in society. So it is all of our problem.

Response

Don’t you think that you practically set out the discussion, you say that some people are trying to offload the burden upon the scientists. I think you are trying to offload the burden on wider society, I think you, yourself as a scientist, you have to take a moral standpoint, that you have to take some sort of responsibility for the research that you are conducting, I don’t want to have this just as a very strong discussion here, I have a feeling, I’m not really satisfied by the extent of being seen to do that. I think we have to have more.

Mark Gasson

I will accept your point.

Conway Mothobi

Conway Mothobi

The whole point about technology and society, and scientists and human beings is that we’ve got to recognise that it is all the same people. OK so yes Mark is a scientist but he isn’t growing strange horns. He is a human being, a member of society etc, etc. The whole thing has to revolve around ownership, take ownership of the technology, take ownership of knowledge. We all own that knowledge. I believe that with any developments there is nothing that we can do to stop it because we are human beings after all. I love challenges and endeavour to me is to meet certain challenges and go one step further and I think that is what is happening. What we have to do with society is to make sure that we move together in these situations of how to conduct research. But I think the major problem is that with research, it costs a lot to do and with a lot of the blue skies stuff that you are talking about, it will depend on governmental research. When something is developed that is useful to someone else, say for example security, then it might get taken up by the private sector and I think that is where the problems that people are talking about start to arise because then the interest isn’t just in the interest of blue skies or thinking of what is useful for the nation or what is useful for humanity. It becomes what is useful for the bank account and we have seen this before.

Technology in terms of responsibility, and I speak here as a scientist. I would say that my responsibility is exactly the same as everyone else because once you step outside the laboratory you are just another two legged being, just another biped that walks this planet. Anyhow that’s what I think.

Response

I find interesting that the social consequences of the technology are not considered by scientists as a risk, in as much as being infected by a virus is considered as a risk. I wouldn’t be so reluctant not to include that in my research I think it is a risk as is being infected with a virus is a risk. The social consequences, the social uses of the technology in the wider development you may have in the project I would integrate that as a risk.

Mark Gasson

Sure

Question

Noone has asked yet about the state. We are talking about the technology and how it could enhance us. What are you going to do when we are all so surveilled already? What are you going to when the state gets a hold of it and keeps track? That sounds like the most horrifying outcome.

Mark Gasson

Sure, but you have to look at the polemic around the use of biometric ID cards that was an application for new technology using biometric technologies, RFID technologies that effectively had a surveillance application.

Interjection

Well everybody’s got a mobile phone and they carry them around, it’s easier it seems to me.

Mark Gasson

Sure, then we look at what people have said about that and in the UK it looks like this idea of having an ID card will be scrapped. There is the power of the people that said that we don’t want it and at the moment we don’t have it.

Interjection

I don’t think we want any of what we already have, when we haven’t been able to stop people scanning our retinas right?

Mark Gasson

Sure, there will always be these applications of technology, they cannot be separated. Once that technology has been developed then that sort of application becomes pretty inevitable. Whether we accept its use… The example of the mobile phone is a very good one. People forget that your mobile phone operator knows exactly where you are. If you turn up in a different country or a different county or go and visit someone regularly, they know about it. But we accept that because we offset that against the convenience of having a mobile phone.

Interjection

Not the government?

Mark Gasson

Well, we can assume that the government can get access to that information.

Comixed: Enhanced

Question

Just wanted to make a comment on the fact that yesterday we saw at the award gala, the Eyewriter. That was a $50 application to enhance as someone with a disability. What are your purposes for identifying what an enhancement is and also looking at it as a more of an open source model, I don’t know whether the product that you develop from that is. My concern is the proprietary nature of bodies being implanted with these things and I would really like them to be hacked if they could be enabled to be something else. I am interested in the business model for them and identifying, what is the enhancement?

Mark Gasson

Our main interest is the development of the medical technologies such as the brain stimulator for Parkinson’s Disease. What we are acutely aware of is that this type of very simple device is being implanted by self-experimenters already. We are just drawing attention to the fact that there will be a point of convergence at some stage. Unfortunately the medical technologies which have a huge benefit to the patient are completely proprietary and extremely expensive although they are available on the NHS, it is only in very extreme cases, because you are looking at probably £10,000 in order to have a device like that implanted, which will very much likely give you your life back. It is a very real problem, but there is an enormous amount of money that has to be pout in the core research and these companies obviously then want to make their money. So this is an argument that will rage on and on.

Question

Mine is a related point to do with the fact that the enhancements might be required due to a disease, disability or indeed or predictable aging consequences that the research could be about equalising access which relates to some of the debate we had earlier. But that’s already been touched on there. I do think that we shouldn’t think in terms of normal/abnormal people and that we need to recognise the continuum of different characteristics in people and connect a bit more with the social science. And indeed there is a cultural context that makes things acceptable or not for people.

Mark Gasson

Sure, but part of the same argument is that if we don’t consider normal and abnormal, perhaps we shouldn’t consider normal and enhanced. This is all part of our human evolution.

BBC News Item on Dr Mark Gasson

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