Why are people afraid of biochip implants

Bioethics

Kevin Warwick

is Assistant Vice Chancellor at Coventry University in the UK. Before that he was Professor of Cybernetics at Reading University. Warwick was the first person to have a computer chip (RFID) implanted in his arm.

What is "biohacking"? And how is it implemented in practice? Kevin Warwick with an introduction.

A BrainGate chip: In experiments, electrical activities of some neurons were monitored by the array electrodes and decoded into a signal, e.g. to enable a paralyzed man to regain control of his arm. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

This article takes a look at the concept of "biohacking" and how it is put into practice. For this purpose, the focus is not so much on the so-called Do It Yourself biology, but on the so-called grinders, who hack their bodies with cybernetic implants, also on the creation of partly biological, partly technological entities and the realization of cyborgs in the sense of real, physical entities. The last point of this article is "neurohacking", which includes "hacking" into the brain or nervous system.

Biohacking

We consider the use of implant technology for non-medical purposes, such as the implantation of RFID devices (radio frequency identification) as identification. Such an RFID device uses radio frequency to send a sequence of pulses that represent a unique number. This number can be programmed to work much like a PIN on a credit card. If someone has an RFID implant inserted and activated, the code can be read out, compared by computer and the identity of the wearer can be determined.

Such implants were used by night clubs in Barcelona and Rotterdam (Baja Beach Club) as a trendy form of admission control for their guests, as well as authorization to enter high-security areas for some members of the Mexican government or as storage for medical data. In the latter case, information about the medication the wearer needs for a disease such as diabetes can be stored on the implant. Due to the positioning in the body, information is no longer forgotten, reports are no longer lost and the data carriers are not easily stolen.

An RFID implant does not have its own battery. It consists of an antenna and a microchip, both of which are encapsulated in silicone or glass. If the antenna is near a larger coil of wire that is carrying electrical charge, it will be powered remotely. The current picked up by the antenna of the implant is used to transmit the signal encrypted in the chip.

The size of the RFID device, in particular that of the antenna, determines how far the implant must be from the coil that supplies the current in order for it to be put into operation. If the implant is the size of a grain of rice, the coil needs to be placed right next to it, basically as close as possible. An implant several centimeters in size, on the other hand, can absorb energy if the distance to the coil is 1 to 2 meters.

Because the implant does not contain a battery or moving parts, it is maintenance-free; once implanted, it can stay in place [1]. An RFID implant of this type was first placed on a human in April 1998 in Reading, England. It was 22 mm long and had a cylinder diameter of 4 mm. The implant enabled the wearer to turn lights on and off, open doors, and be greeted with "hello" when they walked through the front door [2]. Such an implant could be used by human wearers for a variety of purposes, for example as a credit card, car key or (as is the case with animals) as identity card. As far as possible uses in the future are concerned, everything that society wants or is ready to accept and what is more will likely occur commercial field; it is less dependent on technical factors.

The color-blind Neil Harbisson describes another example of biohacking in his work. First, a technology was developed to translate various colors recorded by a camera attached to his head into sound frequencies [3]. Harbisson noted the frequencies belonging to each color. He then later decided to permanently attach the camera to his head, that is, a small, forward-facing camera now hovers over his forehead on a bracket. The bow is connected to the skull at the back of the head. Ultimately, Harbisson is able to differentiate color saturation and color tones based on different volume levels and vibrations [4].

Another project was carried out by Rob Spence, who replaced one of his eyes with an eye-shaped video camera. The prosthetic eye contains a radio transmitter that sends a color video to a separate display in real time. Spence originally lost his right eye when he was 13 while playing with a gun on his grandfather's farm. As a result, he decided to build a mini camera that could be fitted into his artificial eye. The camera is not connected to his optic nerve and has not restored his eyesight in any way. Instead, it is used to record what is in his gaze. A camera model with better performance, higher resolution, and a more powerful transmitter and receiver is currently being developed.

Then there is the implantation of sub-dermal magnets in the biohacking area [5]. Experiments in this direction include the controlled stimulation of the mechanoreceptors, i. H. of the sensory cells or organs that convert mechanical stimuli into nerve excitation. The skin of the human hand contains a large number of easily stimulated mechanoreceptors. They enable humans to experience the shape, size, and texture of objects in the physical world through touch. The highest density of mechanoreceptors is in the fingertips, especially those of the index and middle fingers. They are most sensitive to frequencies in the 200-300 Hz range.

A magnet implanted under the skin can interact with an external electromagnetic coil and be stimulated by it, which the wearer can feel through its mechanoreceptors. An important criterion for implantation is the longevity of the implant. It is only true of permanent magnets that they retain their magnetic strength for a long time and that they are robust enough to withstand test conditions. As a result, only certain types of magnets can be considered for implantation. Magnets made of hard ferrite are suitable for this purpose. The strength of the magnet also has a share in how strongly the implant responds to the external magnetic field, and it also determines the strength of the magnetic field around the implant.

In the experiments reported so far, it was the fingertips of the middle and ring fingers that were most frequently chosen for magnet implantation [5]. An interface between the implant and external stimuli was implemented in the form of a wire frame with a coil that is placed on the respective finger in order to generate a magnetic field with the help of external devices that sets the magnet in the finger in motion. The concept behind this is that the output of an external sensor (in the case of an electromagnet) controls the voltage in the attached coil. Changes in the signals from the external sensor affect the strength of the vibrations that can be felt in the implanted magnet.

Similar experiments were carried out in a large number of application areas, for example with information transmission in the ultrasound range. For this experiment, an external ultrasonic sensor attached to a wire coil is placed on the finger in which the permanent magnet is implanted. The power output of the sensor determines the strength of the current in the coil and, as a result, the vibration of the magnet. The closer an object comes to the sensor, the more current there is in the coil and the stronger the magnet vibrates in the finger. The wearer can therefore feel the distance to objects precisely. This can certainly be helpful for the blind.

Cyborgization

A cyborg is an entity in which biology and technology are united. It is most likely to refer to a connection in which a completely new being is created from man (s) and machine. It is important here that in a cyborg man and machine become an integrated system whose capabilities differ from normal human capabilities and also go beyond the human norm. In the past, some portable computer researchers had claimed to be cyborgs [6]. In these cases, however, the technology was only worn on the body.

There are many examples where implants are used to help with a specific problem, such as "cochlear" implants for deafness or deep brain stimulators for Parkinson's disease [7]. However, these modifications are to be classified as therapeutic, as their purpose is to compensate for a problem caused by a handicap [8]. Ultimately, however, it feels to the wearer of the implant that the technology is part of him or her. Outside of her body, however, she does not remain a part of the carrier. The latter applies, for example, to the military sector, for example for infrared night vision devices that are built into target recognition systems, or for voice-controlled firing mechanisms for fighter pilots.

In these cases, possible ethical problems are relatively trivial. Although the physical abilities of the respective person are expanded by the functions provided, their mental state, their consciousness, has not been changed, or only in the sense that the person knows what he can achieve using the technology. Cyborgs only present an ethical dilemma when it comes to actually modifying the consciousness of the individual. In humans, this means that the technology used is directly connected to the brain or nervous system. This distinguishes them from connections that are in the body but outside of the nervous system, or even from connections that are established outside of the nervous system and the body.

Connections between technology and the human nervous system not only affect the person because they raise questions about the meaning of "I" or "self", they also have a direct impact on autonomy. Someone who wears glasses remains an autonomous human being, whether these glasses are equipped with a computer or not. However, a person whose nervous system is connected to a computer not only changes their individuality, but also allows their autonomy to be impaired when the computer is part of a network. Such a case is discussed in the next part.

BrainGate experiments

When we look specifically at cases of cyborgs, we see that most practical experiments involve people, often self-experimentation, who are closely related to technology. Although many human brain-computer interfaces are used for therapeutic purposes in coping with a medical or neurological problem, the ability to expand is not only a tempting prospect, but also an extremely important feature.

Whether something should be viewed as therapy or enhancement is not an easy question to answer. In some cases, amputees or patients with spinal cord injuries can operate devices through their (still) functioning nerve signals [9]. Patients with a stroke or motor neuron disease (e.g. ALS) can be given a better grip on their surroundings. In these cases, the facts are not clear, as these patients are given skills that a normal person does not have, for example moving a cursor on a computer screen using only nerve signals [10].

So far, some interesting research has been carried out on humans in this area, using "microelectrode arrays", also known as "Utah arrays", or with the frequently used term "BrainGate" (see Figure 1). The individual electrodes of the array are 1.5 millimeters long and taper at the tip to a diameter of less than 90 micrometers. At the moment, human testing is limited to two study groups. We will turn to the first in the following paragraphs; in the second, the array was used purely for the purpose of recording and not for stimulation.

In experiments, electrical activities of some neurons were monitored by the array electrodes and were decoded into a signal that in turn controlled cursor movements. This enabled a person to position the cursor on the screen using neural signals in combination with visual feedback. The same technique was then used to enable a paralyzed person to operate a robotic arm [11], [12]. Recently, the same implant was used to enable a paralyzed man to regain control of his arm [13]. A 24-year-old who suffered C5 paralysis as a result of a swimming accident was given the BrainGate inserted into his motor cortex. The BrainGate was connected via a computer to a device that was pulled over the arm and contained muscle-stimulating electrodes. In this way the patient could learn how to move his wrist and fingers to a limited extent.

However, this application of the microelectrode array (see Figure 1) has greater implications when trying to expand the capabilities of its wearer. As a step towards a broader approach to brain-computer interaction, the microelectrode array was inserted into the nerve fibers of the median nerve of a healthy person in a two-hour neurosurgical operation to test bi-directional functions in a series of experiments. A stimulation current applied directly to the nervous system made it possible to send feedback information to the user, while control signals from the neural activity in the area of ​​the electrodes were decoded. [14]. Several tests could be carried out with this experimental set-up [15].

In particular [10] the following results were found:

1. Extra sensory input (ultrasound) was used successfully.

2. It was possible to precisely control a robot hand over the Internet, with feedback from the robot fingers being sent back as neural stimulation to create a feeling for the pressure exerted on an object. (This was done between Columbia University in New York, USA, and Reading University in England.)

3. A primitive form of telegraphic communication was carried out directly between two human nervous systems. (The recipient's wife also implanted electrodes and sent and received signals.)

4. A wheelchair was successfully driven using neural signals.

5. The color of LEDs worn as jewelry was changed by neural signals - and so was the behavior of a group of small robots.

Image 1: A microelectrode array of 100 electrodes, 4 x 4 millimeters (BrainGate), here for size comparison on a British 1 pence piece

In most, if not all, of the cases enumerated above, the experiment can be declared useful for therapeutic purposes; for example, an incoming ultrasound signal can be helpful to a blind person, while telegraphic communications are useful to patients with specific motor neuron disorders can. However, every attempt can also be seen as a way of expanding the abilities with which a person is normally equipped. Indeed, the healthy man who has the implant in his median nerve did not need it for medical reasons to cope with a problem, rather the experiment was undertaken for the purpose of scientific exploration.

Conclusions

When it comes to cyborgs, we are not only looking at a physical extension of human capabilities, but rather a completely different basis on which the cyborg brain works in a mixed human / machine manner. While it is clear that physical enhancements such as glasses or portable computers as assistive technology give people capabilities that they would not normally have without them, the situation is different when the brain is changed in its nature. Such a cyborg has a different basis from the outset on which to form thoughts at all.

But how far can this go? With additional memory, powerful mathematical skills, including the competence of multidimensional comprehension, the experience of the world in many different ways and communication only through thought signals, such cyborgs would be intellectually far more powerful than humans. It would be difficult to imagine that a cyborg with such idiosyncrasies would be willing to give up his powers willingly. It would be equally difficult to imagine this cyborg paying any heed to someone's banal words.

One characteristic of a cyborg of the kind we are talking about is that it has a brain that is not isolated but is directly connected to a network through its machine part. Realistically speaking, the following question is decisive: Is it morally acceptable for cyborgs to give up their individuality and become mere nodes in an intelligent machine network? This, of course, is a question that applies to both cyborgs and humans.

So this whole area now raises very important ethical questions. Should everyone have the right to be upgraded to a cyborg? If someone does not want that, should he or she be given the opportunity to postpone it and in this way take on a role with the cyborg that corresponds to the current role of a chimpanzee in relation to a human? How do a cyborg's values ​​relate to those of a human?

bibliography

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