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.

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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.

Researchers discover remains of “Triassic Jaws” who dominated the seas after Earth’s most severe mass extinction event

Researchers have discovered the fossil remains of an unknown large predatory fish called Birgeria: an approximately 1.8-meter-long primitive bony fish with long jaws and sharp teeth that swallowed its prey whole.

Swiss and US researchers led by the Paleontological Institute and Museum of the University of Zurich say the Birgeria dominated the sea that once covered present-day Nevada one million years after the mass extinction.

Its period of dominance began following “the most catastrophic mass extinction on Earth”, which took place about 252 million years ago – at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic geological periods.

Image courtesy of UZH. Featured image courtesy of Nadine Bösch

Up to 90% of the marine species of that time were annihilated, and before the discovery of the Birgeria, palaeontologists had assumed that the first predators at the top of the food chain did not appear until the Middle Triassic epoch about 247 to 235 million years ago.

“The surprising find from Elko County in northeastern Nevada is one of the most completely preserved vertebrate remains from this time period ever discovered in the United States,” emphasises Carlo Romano, lead author of the study.

Although, species of Birgeria existed worldwide. The most recent discovery belongs to a previously unknown species called Birgeria Americana, and is the earliest example of a large-sized Birgeria species, about one and a half times longer than geologically older relatives.

The researchers say the discovery of Birgeria is proof that food chains recovered quicker than previously thought from Earth’s most devastating mass extinction event.

According to earlier studies, marine food chains were shortened after the mass extinction event and recovered only slowly and stepwise.

However, finds such as the newly discovered Birgeria species and the fossils of other vertebrates now show that so-called apex predators (animals at the very top of the food chain) already lived early after the mass extinction.

“The vertebrates from Nevada show that previous interpretations of past biotic crises and associated global changes were too simplistic,” said Romano.

Revolutionary DNA sunscreen gives better protection the longer its worn

Researchers have developed a ground-breaking sunscreen made of DNA that offers significant improvements over conventional versions.

Unlike current sunscreens, which need to be reapplied regularly to remain effective, the DNA sunscreen improves over time, offering greater protection the longer it is exposed to the sun.

In addition, it also keeps the skin hydrated, meaning it could also be beneficial as a treatment for wounds in extreme or adverse environments.

Developed by researchers from Binghamton University, State University of New York, the innovative sunscreen could prove essential as temperatures climb and many are increasingly at risk of conditions caused by excessive UV exposure, such as skin cancer.

“Ultraviolet (UV) light can actually damage DNA, and that’s not good for the skin,” said Guy German, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Binghamton University.

“We thought, let’s flip it. What happens instead if we actually used DNA as a sacrificial layer? So instead of damaging DNA within the skin, we damage a layer on top of the skin.”

The DNA sunscreen has the potential to become a standard, significantly improving the safety of spending time in the sun

The research, which is published today in the journal Scientific Reports, involved the development of thin crystalline DNA films.

These films are transparent in appearance, but able to absorb UV light; when the researchers exposed the film to UV light, they found that its absorption rate improved, meaning the more UV is was exposed to, the more it absorbed.

“If you translate that, it means to me that if you use this as a topical cream or sunscreen, the longer that you stay out on the beach, the better it gets at being a sunscreen,” said German.

The film will no doubt attract the attention of sunscreen manufacturers, who will likely be keen to commercialise such a promising product. However, the researchers have not said if there is any interest as yet, and if there is any clear timeline to it becoming a commercial product.

 

The film’s properties are not just limited to sun protection, however. The DNA film can also store water at a far greater rate than conventional skin, limiting water evaporation and increasing the skin’s hydration.

As a result, the film is also being explored as a wound covering, as it would allow the wound to be protected from the sun, keep it moist – an important factor for improved healing – and allow the wound to be monitored without needing to remove the dressing.

“Not only do we think this might have applications for sunscreen and moisturizers directly, but if it’s optically transparent and prevents tissue damage from the sun and it’s good at keeping the skin hydrated, we think this might be potentially exploitable as a wound covering for extreme environments,” said German.