The Politics of Repairing Humans

This week, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced that his mouse brain-mapping project has finally been completed. This major undertaking arrives in tandem with other advances in medical technologies that will soon force political leaders to face difficult policy questions.

Mapping a mouse’s brain is significant not only because mice share 90 percent of their genes with humans, but also because mapping is the first step towards the goal of reverse engineering. Computer science uses reverse engineering to understand how a device or program works, usually with the goal of copying and improving the technology.

Exciting Potential

Researchers interested in extending human longevity, such as Ray Kurzweil, believe that reverse-engineering the brain can lead to great advances, not only in understanding how to repair the human body, but also in the field of artificial intelligence. This potential is exciting, and it challenges many of our current practices and beliefs. Consider, for instance, a procedure being tested to wake up patients that many doctors consider brain dead.

Using electrical stimulation of the brain, a type of human “reboot,” scientists have discovered that it is sometimes possible to wake people in deep comas. Dr. Edwin Cooper, an American orthopedic surgeon, has had some encouraging success with his technique, including awakening from a coma Candice Ivey, a woman doctors wanted to terminate by pulling her feeding tube.

Today, Ms. Ivey is alive and well, working as a therapist in a retirement community. This raises the thorny question of when someone should be declared dead or alive and who should make that call. If Terry Schiavo hadn’t been ordered to starve by government officials who sided with her husband instead of her parents who wanted to keep her alive, could she have benefited from this or other future therapy?

Incredible Advances

That question will never be answered, but new methods and therapies, or those just around the corner, should make all of us rethink how these issues are handled. There are other issues along these lines as well. Consider Claudia Mitchell, who recently became the first woman to receive a bionic arm.

After losing her left arm in a motorbike accident, Mitchell was lucky enough to meet the folks at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago who have been working on creating more useful and natural artificial limbs. With funding from the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), scientists have figured out how to make bionic arms like Mitchell’s that interact with her body, so that she only has to think about her mechanical arm doing something and it does.

That’s an incredible feat and fantastic news for anyone unfortunate enough to lose a limb. It also takes us further down the path of human-machine integration, raising tricky public-policy issues driven, at least for now, by simple fear.

A recent Pew Internet and American Life Project survey notes that 42 percent of respondents fear that humans will lose control of technology, creating dangers like those in science fiction movies such as “The Terminator” or “The Matrix.” Some even believe that the intelligent robots we create will wind up treating us like pets.

Managing Fear

With these concerns already here and likely to grow as technology advances, it is important to properly address them so that political pressure doesn’t stop important research that might help us live longer and better lives.

Paul Allen has done the world a huge favor by funding research into humanity’s most complex organ, the brain. New information about how the brain operates, combined with other advances in body repair, should change how policy makers view those who have been injured. Technology will make possible continued improvement in the human condition so long as political leaders can manage the inevitable fear factor.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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