Project ‘Cyborg’ is perhaps one of the most interesting projects in the science and technology of robotics. However, experiments involved in the project equally attract some ethical concerns due to its use of human beings as laboratory animals.
Pioneered by Ken Warwick, a renowned British professor of robotics at the University of Reading, project Cyborg aims at developing robots that can mimic humans through a connection between the control center of the robot and human nervous system (Warwick, 2004a).
Moreover, it aims at controlling robots from a remote location. In addition, it aims at connecting the nervous systems of two people in order to observe the possible control a person can have over a robot. Although the experiment has been developed in the modern world, there is a lot to be compared between Project Cyborg and project ‘New Electrical Apparatus’ by Nicholson and Carlisle in late 18th century.
Specifically, it is arguable that the two experiments raise relatively similar and equal concerns over the use of human nervous system in self-experimentation. This is especially because the two experiments involve interfering with the physiological integrity of the nerves and flow of stimuli by introducing an external electric current.
The purpose of this discussion is to address the question ‘ethically speaking, is the self-experimentation done by Nicholson and Carlisle significantly different from the self-experimentation Ken Warwick is doing on himself for Project Cyborg?’
In this project, which started in 1998, a number of arrays were developed into an electrode and implanted as a chip into the median fibers of Professor Warwick’s left arm (Warwick, 2004a). The array was passed through a surgical incision below the professor’s elbow joint, which allowed the surgeons to insert a microelectrode array into the body and enabling it fire some electric stimulus into the professor’s nerve fibers.
The neural interface developed between the microarray chip and the nerve endings of the professor’s arm successfully enabled the human subject (Professor Warwick) to control an intelligent (artificial) hand as well as an electric wheelchair. This proved that humans could control robots using a neural interface, which makes the robots ‘think’ and act as humans (Warwick, 2004a).
Secondly, the project went ahead to assume a remote functionality, where a connection between the microchip in the professor’s hand (then Columbia University, USA) and a robotic arm in the university of Reading through the internet. In this way, Professor Warwick was able to control the remote arm through this online connection, adding to the proof that robots can mimic humans in remote locations.
Finally, the project assumed a bidirectional functioning, where another chip implanted in the left arm of Warwick’s wife allowed a purely electronic communication between the nervous systems of the two subjects (Warwick, 2004b).
Ethically and scientifically speaking, the experiments in project Cyborg have a number of similarities with the ‘self-experiments’ by William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle in late 18th century.
First, Nicholson (1800) report that they used their own bodies to feel the effect of an electric current generated electrochemically by inserting piles of zinc rods in a bath of salty water and connecting them through a wire to silver leads of similar sizes inserted in the same bath (Nicholson, 1800).
As the two scientists attempted to investigate the discoveries by Volta, they extensively exposed their bodies to electric currents of differing magnitudes.
This is quite similar to the connection between Professor Warwick’s nerves and the electronic array in the implanted chip. In fact, the electronic connection between the nerves and the external electric current in both experiments was felt as an ‘interference’ with the physiological flow of synaptic stimuli through human nerves.
Secondly, it raises a question of ethics when considering the fact that the need to determine the intensity and extent of the connection between the biological and synthetic stimulus was an area of interest, and that exposing the internal surfaces of the body was done through inserting the external stimulus by an incision on the skin.
Although the case of project Cyborg involved a purely clinical process that ensured a safe insertion of the chip under the professor’s skin, it is quite similar to the case of the project by Nicholson and Carlisle, where a wound was used to convey electric currents to the nerve endings below the human skin (Nicholson, 1800).
Finally, an ethical concern emerges in the practices involved in both experiments because in both cases, the purpose is to prove a chemical/electrical question rather than solving a medical problem. In fact, although Project Cyborg included some medical expertise, the purpose is significantly similar to the project by Nicholson and Carlisle largely because a medical achievement is not one of their aims.
In conclusion, counterarguments against this thesis may arise. For instance, it is possible to argue that the two experiments are ethically different because Project Cyborg involved a clinical approach, while Nicholson and Carlisle’s experiment was largely unhygienic because a wound was used as an incision to reach the nerve endings.
In addition, it can be argued that although the two projects involved some steps that could interfere with human nerves, Project Cyborg is much ethical than the accidental experiment of the 18th century. This is because Warwick and his colleagues had the modern information and necessary resources to measure the potential impact of interfering with the nerves, and thereby providing an effective solution.
Nicholson, W. (1800). Account of the New Electrical Apparatus of Sig. Alex. Volta. Nicholson’s Journal of Natural Philosophy, 4, 179–187.
Warwick, K. (2004a). I, Cyborg. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Warwick, K. (2004b). The next step towards true Cyborgs? Retrieved from http://www.kevinwarwick.com/project-cyborg-2-0/