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Are cyborgs becoming a reality?

New technological brain implants are helping solve important medical issues, but they are also raising many ethical questions.

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Recently, billionaire and entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted that Neuralink, his neurotechnology company, had successfully implanted a computerized device in the brain of a human. The device, named Telepathy, has 1,024 electrodes and 64 ultra-fine threads designed to detect brain signals. According to Musk, the implant will enable its recipient to control various devices, like smartphones and computers, “just by thinking.” This sounds like science fiction. Is humanity on the verge of developing cyborgs, beings with technological body parts that can augment their normal, biological capabilities?

It’s too early to say whether Telepathy will work. Elon Musk is famous for his publicity stunts. In 2016, he predicted that by 2018 his Tesla cars would be driving autonomously from New York to Los Angeles, and his SpaceX rockets would have reached Mars. Neither has yet occurred.

Neuralink is not the first company or institute to work on brain-computer interfaces. For example, in recent years, Swiss scientists inserted brain implants into a paralyzed man, using a “digital bridge” to reconnect his brain and spinal cord. This gave him back the use of his legs. Other researchers are doing similar work to help tetraplegic or brain-damaged patients. Neuralink has promised to do the same.

However, not all research into neural engineering has such goals. The US army is implanting devices in live animals for military purposes. For example, it is developing cyborg-insects, real insects with neural implants through which they can be guided using special remote controls. It also plans to create cyborgs rats, pigeons and even sharks.

Ethical questions abound. Is it right to control animals in such a way? For what purpose? And what about humans? Should neural implants be limited to people with serious medical issues? Would people with neural implants be vulnerable to cybercrime, surveillance, or, even worse, external conditioning? Recent scientific and technological advancements are raising questions that once belonged to the realm of science fiction.

ACTIVITY: Debate

Pair up with one of your classmates and look at the proposition below; one of you will argue in favour of it and the other will argue against it.

Proposition: Neural implants should be limited to patients with serious disabilities.

(Carlo Dellonte)
(Image: Just_Super, istockphoto.com)

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