November 13, 2012      

There is a huge potential market for cyborg technology among people with physical –and particularly intellectual– disabilities, says Rich Donovan, CEO of Fifth Quadrant Analytics, a business intelligence firm focused on the disability market.

Of the 1.1 billion people with a disability worldwide, 78 percent have an ‘invisible disability,’ that is, a learning or cognitive disability,? says Donovan, who happens to have cerebral palsy and drives around Manhattan’s sidewalks on a customized scooter.

A further 8-10% of people with disabilities use some kind of mobility device and some 100 million have some kind of sensory disability. As cyborg technology progresses, people with disabilities are likely to be among the first adopters.

Manufacturers are unlikely to find a more demanding group of users, says Donovan.

?People with disabilities are extreme users. They use things very harshly and beat the crap out of most things that come their way. Extreme users will give you mainstream insights that become marketable for everybody.?

Although Donovan accepts that by some definitions he is a cyborg, he does not identify himself as such, nor does he consider his scooter to be an extension of his body.

?The scooter is certainly a key element of my identity [?] that enhances my life experience. I make the choice of when to ?wear? it, and it has a material impact on my life. It is not like a car, in that the alternatives are not easily taken. That said, I would not identify myself as a cyborg, because the ?brand? is too undefined.?

Ultimately, laws will be guided by market forces, says Donovan.

?The market will take care of it. Let me put it this way, if there was a technology developed that would allow me to put on a pair of pants or allow me to play football with my son, I would do that in a second. I wouldn’t care what the law says. I wouldn’t care what the courts say. I would just get it done.?

Further, excess regulation would be counter-productive in terms of controlling demand, says Donovan.

?The market will find a way around excess regulation, whether it?s offshore or underground. The biggest legal battles that I can see are third parties who get angry or uncomfortable with not using the tech, perhaps seeing it as an ‘unfair advantage.??

Enhancement versus therapy

It’s useful to distinguish between therapy and enhancement when it comes to understanding some of the ethical implications of cyborg technologies, says Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group, at California Polytechnic State University.

In therapeutic scenarios, an intelligent prosthesis could be used to replace a missing limb, for example, or a brain-implant could help people with Alzheimer’s to restore their memories. In enhancement scenarios, people with all their senses and limb functions may wish to build on their existing capabilities through the use of exoskeletons or cognitive implants.

?The line between enhancement and therapy can be fuzzy at times, but there’s still value in it. The point of the debate is to ask whether some cyborg technologies, such as enhancements, are problematic or raise special issues that we need to pay attention to,? says Lin, who contributed to a 2009 National Science Foundation-funded report on the ethics of human enhancement.

If a cognitive device bestows the wearer with enhanced mental abilities, for example, issues of competitive advantage and fair access are likely to arise. But if the same implant is used exclusively to restore brain function to those who have suffered some injury, then there is likely to be less clamor for general use.

Not everyone sees value in the distinction however.

?There should be no [legal] difference between a blind person that wants to see through an electronic eye and someone that sees perfectly and wants to extend their visual senses to ultraviolet or infrared perception,? says Neil Harbisson. Harbisson is a color-blind artists who wears an ‘eyborg’ device that allows him to ‘hear’ colors.

?No differentiation should be made between people that use it for medical reasons and people that wish to use technology attached to their bodies to extend their senses.?

Rich Donovan agrees.

?Therapies exist for clinicians only and are artificial. All the user cares about is the net beneficial outcome,? he says.

Policy makers and legislators deal with ethical issues across a wide range of applications and scenarios, so they probably won’t have the luxury of dispensing with the therapy-enhancement distinction. And it is certainly useful for distinguishing different applications of cyborg technology.

But resistance to the distinction from within the cyborg community may be more widespread than anticipated.

Do you think that law-making around emerging robotics should be led by market forces or by policy makers? Are you a cyborg with a story to tell? Email us.

Other thought provoking articles grouped under, The Cyborg Agenda:

The Cyborg Agenda: Where Human Meets Machine

The Cyborg Agenda: Blurring Body Boundaries
Linda MacDonald Glenn, a U.S.-based attorney and bioethicist at the Alden March Bioethics Institute
Neil Harbisson, Spanish artist and founder of The Cyborg Foundation
Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group, at California Polytechnic State University

The Cyborg Agenda: Policy and Power Struggles
James Giordano, director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and Chairman of the Capital Consortium on Neuroethics, Legal and Social Issues and the National Neuroscience, Ethics, Legal and Social Issues project