The main legal problem presented by cyborg technology is a blurring of the distinction between persons and property, says Linda MacDonald Glenn, a U.S.-based attorney and bioethicist at the Alden March Bioethics Institute, Albany Medical College.
?Traditionally, and this is true in most jurisdictions, there is a dichotomy between person and property. Property doesn’t have rights, but persons do,? says Glenn.
?The rights of the individual may change when the performance of the individual is enhanced by a machine or other technology. One of the questions likely facing our courts will be ‘Where do the rights of an autonomous system begin, assuming that an individual is an inherent part of that autonomous system?’.?
One of Glenn’s cases involved a disabled Vietnam veteran completely dependent on an intelligent ?mobile assistance device? (MAD) to get around. When the device was damaged in the hold of an airplane during a domestic US flight, the airline’s insurance adjustor accepted responsibility, but likened the incident to an automobile accident in which the owner was not in the vehicle.
Glenn successfully persuaded the insurance adjustor that the MAD was not property, but an extension of her client’s body. The adjustor agreed to a higher settlement.
?In my mind, Mr. Collins is a cyborg even though he’s not directly connected to his machine, because he’s completely dependent on the technology,? says Glenn, who calls on legal experts and policy makers to start thinking about cyborgs in terms of a continuum of person and property rather than as a dichotomy.
The $1.9 million, European Commission-funded RoboLaw project is investigating potential ethical, legal, and regulatory issues arising from emerging cyborg technologies. Their goal is to produce a white paper on the topic for the European Commission by 2014.
The United States needs to make a similar investment in time and resources, says Glenn, who calls on government agencies to organize a national discussion about legal and ethical issues raised by cyborg technology.
?Not enough is being done in the United States. We still have a long ways to go to consider legal and ethical issues around cyborg technology. Right now, the research is being left to individuals,? says Glenn.
See Mr. Collins’ Case Study: Ethical/Legal Issues in Human Machine Mergers
A Cyborg Perspective
Color-blind since birth, Spanish artist and cyborg Neil Harbisson wears an ‘eyeborg’ a device that emits varying tones matched to the presence of different colors, effectively enabling him to ?hear? color.
For Harbisson, the distinction between human and machine is not necessarily part of an academic legal, ethical, or policy discussion, but a practical matter.
?Who should I visit if I have problems hearing the color blue? My doctor or my engineer?? asks Harbisson, who founded The Cyborg Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to cyborg-related educational and research projects in 2010.
As Harbisson knows from first-hand experience, cyborg technologies can present unique challenges for ill-prepared authorities.
In 2004, for example, his UK passport application was rejected because their regulations prohibit people from wearing electronic equipment in their passport photo. Officials relented only when Harbisson provided a letter from his doctor explaining that the eyeborg is a permanent part of his body.
And in 2011, mistakenly believing that he was filming police at an anti-austerity protest in Barcelona, local law enforcement damaged his device, says Harbisson.
?They didn’t attack me because I was a cyborg but because they had no idea that I was using this to perceive color. Although I explained it to them, they didn’t accept my explanation. Many people don’t know what a cyborg is or that people are using technology as part of their body,? says Harbisson.
Policy makers should encourage the creation of research and medical centers specializing in cybernetic implants, sensory extensions, and osseointegrations, says Harbisson, an advocate for DIY cyborg enhancement projects.
?There are veterinary hospitals and human hospitals. We need cyborg hospitals too.?
While implants and intelligent prostheses offer a physical connection between human and machine, ?true cyborg union? occurs when the human brain unites with software.
?The strongest union is the invisible one,? says Harbisson, noting that it took his brain at least five months to fully adapt to the new sensory capability created by his eyeborg.
Legislators should resist the temptation to over-regulate cyborg technology, says Harbisson. Instead, they should defend the individual’s right to integrate the human body with technology.
?We need laws to protect those who want to use technology as part of their body. Not only those that use medical devices but also people that want to extend their own senses.?
And the answer to Harbisson’s original question?
?Right now,? he says, ?if can’t perceive a color properly, I don’t go to an optician. I go to a computer engineer.?
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: Extreme Users
Rich Donovan, CEO of Fifth Quadrant Analytics, a business intelligence firm focused on the disability market
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