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.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.

Mac spyware stole millions of user images

A criminal case brought against a man from Ohio, US has shed more light on a piece of Mac malware, dubbed Fruitfly, that was used to surreptitiously turn on cameras and microphones, take and download screenshots, log keystrokes, and steal tax and medical records, photographs, internet searches, and bank transactions from users.

Source: Ars Technica

Drone swarm attack strikes Russian military bases

Russia's Ministry of Defence claims its forces in Syria were attacked a week ago by a swarm of home-made drones. According to Russia's MoD Russian forces at the Khmeimim air base and Tartus naval facility "successfully warded off a terrorist attack with massive application of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)"

Source: Science Alert

Las Vegas strip club employs robot strippers

A Las Vegas strip club has flown in robot strippers from London to 'perform' at the club during CES. Sapphire Las Vegas strip club managing partner Peter Feinstein said that he employed the robots because the demographics of CES have changed and the traditional female strippers aren’t enough to lure a crowd to the club anymore.

Source: Daily Beast

GM to make driverless cars without steering wheels or pedals by 2019

General Motors has announced it plans to mass-produce self-driving cars without traditional controls like steering wheels and pedals by 2019. “It’s a pretty exciting moment in the history of the path to wide scale [autonomous vehicle] deployment and having the first production car with no driver controls,” GM President Dan Ammann told The Verge.

Source: The Verge

Russia-linked hackers "Fancy Bears" target the IOC

Following Russia's ban from the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics, the Russia-linked hacking group "Fancy Bears" has published a set of apparently stolen emails, which purportedly belong to officials from the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, and third-party groups associated with the organisations.

Source: Wired

Scientists discover ice cliffs on Mars

Using images provided by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists have described how steep cliffs, up to 100 meters tall, made of what appears to be nearly pure ice indicate that large deposits of ice may also be located in nearby underground deposits. The discovery has been described as “very exciting” for potential human bases.

Source: Science Mag