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.
Both 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.
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.