Bertolt Meyer, the academic known as “the bionic man”, said yesterday that scientists and engineers should not be allowed to launch some technological advances on the open market without a prior ethical debate.
Meyer, a key speaker at the first FutureFest event in east London this weekend, has had a cutting-edge £40,000 artificial lower arm and hand since 2009. Talking to an audience in Shoreditch town hall, he asked whether the public ought to let the laws of supply and demand decide how the human race moves towards a probable “bionic” future; a time where the bodies of those with access and money can be enhanced and augmented. “We are reaching the point where people with artificial limbs may have an advantage. It they start to appeal to everyone, a mass market will develop,” he said.
Engineers on the frontline of research are not always prepared to think through the impact of their work and the ethical dilemmas involved, he argued.
Speaking to the Observer later, Meyer said he felt the business world would be “arrogant and naive” if it continued to assume that commercial interests could solve the world’s problems on their own: “These issues have to be decided by law makers, but public debate like this helps to set people thinking. It is only high-level political bodies that will have the authority to put laws into place. They have to work out how we are going to regulate the market.”
Meyer added that in some parts of the world cosmetic surgery has already created a new norm for the rich. “Ethicists are thinking about these things already, of course, but they don’t really have a public voice.” But he added: “I certainly don’t think all these innovations are necessarily negative, though.”
Meyer’s documentary, How to Build a Bionic Man, was shown on Channel 4 in February and will be aired in America next month. It looks at the advanced prosthetic limbs that will soon become available, at a cost, and also at prototypes of artificial organs, including implantable lungs and plastic kidneys, that are not rejected by the host body.
The Paralympic Games in 2012 raised the profile of high-performance disability and the question of the unfair advantages technology can create. Meyer wondered if a backlash is coming, and talked about his pride in his hi-tech arm. It has given him new confidence, he said, whereas his previous prosthesis “oozed 1970s” and made him feel ashamed.
Meyer also queried the implications of the recent story of the 14-year-old British boy Matthew James who, like Meyer, was born with dysmelia, the rare condition that means one of his arms stops at the elbow. Turned down by the NHS, he wrote to Mercedes, his favourite Formula One team, and offered to display their logo on a new state-of-the-art prosthesis if they would help him pay for it. Mercedes contributed £30,000 but did not take up his offer of advertising space.
“I think this is a terrible story, not a good one,” said Meyer. “We can’t leave everything to individual entrepreneurship. ‘Hunger? Oh yes, there’s an app, or a business plan for that!’ Ethical questions are on the very bottom of large corporations’ to-do lists. We cannot leave these issues to businesses alone.”
FutureFest is an event organised by Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and curated by Pat Kane, the Scottish musician and social activist. Kane, introducing the weekend, asked visitors to think of the festival as “a kind of Glastonbury for the mid-century”.
The author Nick Harkaway, first to speak to the crowd, said it was unfortunate that the habit of looking to the future with hope had fallen off in the last few decades. The demise of the 1960s concept of the space age, along with the gratuitous division of the arts and the sciences, had disillusioned many. “We haven’t talked optimistically about the future for a while, but we can be fairly sure that next year will be twice as “changey” as this year, and that will increase exponentially from now on.”
To address this accelerating rate of change the Oxford Martin School, a research think tank at Oxford University, is running a series of debates as part of the festival this weekend. Other foward-thinking attractions include the concept of a future city of glass, a giant singing conch and an interactive performance that promises to “Xhume” great thinkers of the past to learn what they think about where humanity is heading.
Underneath the speakers and their audiences, inside the tunnels of the town hall’s basement, engineers and scientists are showcasing technological developments, while in one subterranean corner a series of notional objects that might prove to be among the leading scientific developments of the next 50 years are on display. Among them is the “Micromort”, a handheld device “created in 2032″ for assessing risk based on the analysis of data, including blood pressure, sweat and other physical manifestations of stress. Alongside it is a disaster kit, supposedly developed in Tehran in 2020, that allows medics on the scene of a natural disaster or epidemic to locate and talk to each other as they treat the injured. Next door is evidence of an initiative called The Braid Collective, by which artists all over the world are able to support each other’s practice through crowd-funding. The more far-flung reaches of technology include a late 21st-century design for turning down the temperature on Venus.
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