Tue, Jun 18, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Bionic transhumanism making Superman a proximate reality

By Mark Honigsbaum  /  The Observer

Bertolt Meyer is used to being viewed as not fully human. Born with a stump where his left hand should have been, he spent his childhood wearing a hook connected to an elaborate pulley and harness.

“To open the hook and grasp things I had to flex my shoulders like this,” he said, striking a He-Man pose. “The harness was very uncomfortable. I was always sweating.”

Even when, at the age of 19, Meyer exchanged his body-powered hook for a myoelectric prosthesis with a more realistic plastic hand, he kept his disfigured left arm hidden from view.

“It wasn’t simply a question of aesthetics,” he said, proffering the plastic hand, now grubby and discolored with use. “You have to understand, this is a stigma. People think its weird. You walk around with a sense of shame.”

Today, that shame is gone. In 2009, Meyer, a social psychologist at the University of Zurich, was fitted with an i-limb, a state-of-the-art bionic prosthesis developed by a Scottish company, Touch Bionics, that comes with 24 different grip patterns. To select a new suite of gestures, Meyer simply taps an app on his iPhone.

“This is the first prosthesis where the aesthetics match the engineering,” he said, balancing a pen between his purring electronic fingers. “It’s part of me and I’m proud of it.”

Since appearing in the British Channel 4 documentary How to Build a Bionic Man, in which he allowed engineers to build a robotic replica of the rest of his body complete with artificial heart, lungs and an alarming prosthetic likeness of his face, Meyer has become something of a poster boy for “transhumanism.” Encompassing everything from robotic limbs to memory-enhancing neural implants to gene therapies that slow aging, transhumanism (or posthumanism) concerns the technologies and drugs that are rapidly altering the limits of human performance, as well as notions about what we might look like in future.

As Nick Bostrom, the head of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford and a leading transhumanist thinker puts it, transhumanism “challenges the premise that the human condition is and will remain essentially unalterable.”

“It seems to me fairly obvious why one might have reason to desire to become a posthuman in the sense of having a greatly enhanced capacity to stay alive and healthy,” he writes. “I suspect that the majority of humankind already has such a desire implicitly.”

However, while some medical interventions such as organ transplants command wide social acceptance, others invite moral approbation. This is particularly the case where the enhancement is regarded as a vanity or may be detrimental to health.

Then there is the question of access — an i-limb costs £30,000 (US$47,160), while an artificial heart will set you back £70,000 — and whether it is OK to turn a blind eye to the “off-label” use of drugs such as Ritalin, which was developed as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but is increasingly being used to enhance cognitive performance.

Even more ethically fraught is the line between restorative therapy and elective surgery. Last year, for instance, an Austrian man who damaged his hand in a motorcycle accident opted for an amputation and had a bionic replacement fitted.

At the moment, bionic hands are poor substitutes for the real thing — they can grasp and manipulate objects, but they cannot feel. Yet what if, in the future, we could make bionic hands with a sense of touch that were also capable of enhanced performance? Would we be happy if a struggling concert pianist elected to amputate his hand so that he could perform Rachmaninoff’s infamously difficult third concerto?

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