What can Deus Ex: Human Revolution teach us about the ethics of human augmentation?

With details of augmentation-focused game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided set to be announced later today, we look at the ethics of human augmentation through the lens of its prequel

A few years ago, a video game was released that addressed the ethical quandaries posed by skill-enhancing augmentations better than almost anything before it.

In it, you played a highly augmented individual working private security for a medical device company, against a backdrop of a near-future world where augmentations to enable everything from social persuasion to improved physical capabilities are widespread.

The game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, has a slightly absurd plot, but the way it handles the ethical issues and likely societal concerns that would arise from widespread augmentation is excellent.

The game even extends this away from the console, with a website for fictional augmentation company Sarif Industries that showcases enhancements with such conviction that British tabloid newspaper The Sun actually mistakenly ran a story on it.

sarif4Both in the game and through a mock “hacking” of the website, Deus Ex: HR shows the concern and resulting aggression from those who see augmentation technology as playing god, while also portraying the potential good that can be achieved with augmentation.

While the subject matter is clearly fantasy, little by little reality is starting to bear a resemblance to the game’s world, and as we begin to enter an augmented state, we may greatly benefit from considering the issues the game raises.

State of augmentation

We are currently nowhere near the stage of Deus Ex: HR in terms of augmentation technology, but there are some aspects where we are progressing.

Physical augmentations in the form of exoskeletons and prosthetics are slowly improving, and are starting to be used for non-medical applications.

As well as the more widely covered arm and leg prosthetics, there are even prosthetic eyes in development.

Although you may not be aware, there is a good chance you know someone with some form of implant

As time goes by these are likely to progress to the point that they offer significant improvements over the standard human form, at which point they may start to be seen as an appealing option for healthy individuals.

Brain augmentations are at present far more in the realm of science fiction, but with increasing research into brain mapping and brain-computer interfaces, even these are set to become reality.

While these may seem like radical steps for those not in medical need, we are likely to become accustomed to augmenting our bodies through the use of implants.

At present, a significant minority of people have implants for health or contraceptive purposes; although you may not be aware, there is a good chance you know someone with some form of implant.

Within the next few years we will see a growth in implants that provide monitoring and even communication functions, and many of us will see their benefits as far outweighing their risks.

Once we are used to such implants, further augmentations may be far easier to accept.

Augmentation and drug dependency

One of the most pivotal features of augmentation in the world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the reliance on anti-rejection medication by augmented humans.

The drug, known as neuropozyne, is readily available, but expensive and tightly controlled, meaning those who find themselves short of money are faced with the painful prospect of neuropozyne withdrawal and the eventual crippling rejection of their augmentations.

As hellish as this is, it has always seemed like nothing more than dark sci-fi, designed to serve as an interesting point of conflict for the game.

However, a recent high-profile news story suggests otherwise.

In February, three Austrians made headlines for having their arms removed and replaced with thought-controlled prosthetics through a new surgical procedure.

They did so due to severe nerve damage that had rendered their original hands useless, making the decision highly understandable.

However, an under-reported element of the story was the drug dependency resulting from the procedure.

The Guardian reported that surgeon Dr Oskar Aszmann, from the Medical University of Vienna, had confirmed the three men would need to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of their lives.

The men in question probably considered the radical improvements in motor control a worthwhile trade-off, but this fact does suggest that the scenario that plays out in the game is possible.

In many countries where healthcare is state-run, being priced out of a much-needed treatment would be very unlikely.

However, in regions such as the US, which rely on a system of private healthcare, a neuropozyne-like scenario isn’t all that hard to conceive. If we do get to the stage where we are willingly enhancing ourselves through augmentations, this could be a very real threat.

Improving human ability to compete

One of the more complex issues addressed in the game is that of augmentations giving the recipients advantages in the job market.

Those who opt to get augmentations that are specialised to particular professional fields, for example stockbroking, are at a radical advantage over those who don’t, leading to a scenario where people feel they have to become augmented in order to forge a viable career.

If augmentation became a reality for the masses, it could exacerbate the divide between rich and poor even further

In the game this inevitably results in an unfair advantage for the wealthy; something that is already a real issue today in many fields, such as development or the arts, even without augmentation being part of the equation.

If augmentation became a reality for the masses, it could exacerbate this divide even further, resulting in an all-out destruction of the ability to better ones situation and re-creating the untouchable upper class that has begun to emerge from the ashes of global recession.

In the game, characters seek to avoid this by borrowing money for augmentations from unscrupulous loan sharks, and a similar scenario could easily arise in real life.

The other alternative would of course be to have augmentations available through some socially-funded programme, but this idea would certainly be met with resistance in more right-wing cultures.

Religious opposition to augmentation

If human augmentation were to be made available to healthy individuals as a means to improve themselves beyond human capabilities, negative reactions would be inevitable.

Just as they have with stem cells, many religious groups would see the technology as playing god, and meddling with things humans were never meant to meddle with.

In Deus Ex: HR this movement is represented by a group called Purity First, a radical organisation firmly opposed to the use of augmentations.

However, although vocal and often violent, the group have not yet succeeded in preventing augmentations in the game.


From the latest issue of Factor Magazine: The age of the transhuman. Read it free on iPad and web.

Whether religion serves as a barrier to augmentations in reality remains to be seen, and it is likely that some religions will have success in some areas of the world.

However, in many areas religion opposition is unlikely to be more than a minority, and if society seems augmentations as a benefit, they will stand a good chance of being accepted.

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”