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Thursday [3.8.17]5 min read

When does someone stop being human and start becoming a robot?

With prosthetics becoming more sophisticated and with some offering even more functionality than a human limb, will people soon start replacing their healthy body parts with these high-tech mechanics? And if so, when does someone stop being human and start becoming a robot?

The first steps to the future

Where there's war, there are casualties – which have led to innovation. Thousands of years ago warriors were fitted with prosthetic limbs after being injured in battle. The first recorded story is of an Indian queen who gained an iron leg – after her own was severed – so she could continue to lead her army.

In the modern world, the victims of war still drive prosthetic innovation. US soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned to active duty with new hands, legs, feet and arms. Microprocessors embedded in their prostheses pick up and adjust for impacts from walking, running, jumping and climbing.

Prosthetics have moved from being merely placeholders for missing limbs to functional hands that grip and legs that run fast – very fast. Sprint runner Oscar Pistorius initially came to fame as the first double-leg amputee to compete in the Olympics, despite objections by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). It ruled his artificial limbs gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes.

The stuff of science fiction

While robots and drones may well take over from soldiers one day, what about the enhanced soldier – ordinary people who are genetically and chemically altered to make them faster, harder and stronger? What happens when Captain America isn’t an isolated example? And when does a solider become a weapon?

Think about the Deus Ex: Human Revolution video game where Alex Jensen, the main character, has blades installed in his arms and other characters have guns. While Alex has had most of his body augmented with cybernetic prosthesi s, in Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, Major Motoko Kusanagi sports a state-of-the-art full-body prosthesis which includes a cybernetic brain.

Or Blade Runner’s replicants, which are androids genetically engineered from the same building blocks as us, only they are smarter and stronger. The difference is that in their short lives, they don’t accumulate memories and experiences and have relationships like we do.

In a less futuristic world, Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless is able to access 100% of his brain abilities after taking a pill. The struggling writer becomes a financial wizard – but he is also introduced to a world with unexpected dangers. While chemically augmented beyond the norm, he has the equivalent life skills of a newborn.

Is the truth as strange as fiction?

Life catching up with ‘art’?

Futurist Ray Kurzweil has been making fairly accurate predictions about human development since the 1990s. He foresaw robotic legs for paraplegics, and predicts Matrix-like brain implants allowing full-immersion virtual reality, nanobots in the bloodstream feeding cells and doing away with the traditional way of eating, and the same nanotechnology improving our intelligence and memories.

Even though they aren’t yet as efficient as the real thing, there are already artificial hearts, spleens, ears and eyes. We’ve all heard about the drugs that make you run faster, and then there’s a magnetic method which cuts pilots’ training time in half by speeding up learning. There are also signs it could improve memory as well as language and maths ability.

Dr Matt Beard from the Ethics Centre says enhancing our bodies is nothing new. "Whether it's training, using supplements or good nutrition, humans have been trying to enhance their bodies for a long time. Part of what is different now is that the enhancements can be achieved without any real effort on the part of the person being enhanced. In the future, if I want to be a faster runner, I might not need to train or eat well, as long as I can afford the enhancements."

Humans and transhumans

Kurzweil and other transhumanists see all these modifications as part of being human. They say it’s natural to want to develop our capacities – which is what we’ve done throughout history, to the point where we can build a bionic man.

Peter Xing, one of the founders of Transhumanism Australia, describes the movement as "the integration of our human biology with technology.

"Transhumanism has three main goals: to achieve Super-longevity (to live more healthily and longer), Super-intelligence (to be smarter and more knowledgeable) and Super-wellbeing (to live more happily and to move through the pyramid of human needs from basic survival to achieving our full potential)," says Xing.

Dr James Hughes, bioethicist, sociologist and co-founder of what is now Humanity+, warns that for humanity to benefit from transhuman technology, it has to be regulated. Talking about the X-men universe he says, “… if you had a neighbour who had the power, by just looking at you, to turn you into a pile of ash… this is a dangerous thing.”

Some question whether doctors and medical professionals should be involved in enhancement.

"What is the purpose of medicine?" asks Dr Beard. "To make our bodies as good as they can be, or to restore them to their natural functioning? If it's about natural functioning, surgeons might think it's okay to operate on an eye to restore damaged vision, but not to tinker with a perfectly good eye to try to make it better."

Then there are the philosophical questions.

"How many enhancements does a person need to have before they stop being human?" Dr Beard asks. "Is there a difference between enhancing the body and enhancing the brain? What would it mean for humanity if we could stop ageing altogether and never die? Would our lives still have meaning if death held no power over us?"

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