A Philosopher's Blog

The Ethics of Cyberbugs

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 7, 2012
Parthenium beetles

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In science fiction, a cyborg (“cybernetic organism”) is a combination of organic and technological components. Daleks, Cybermen, Terminators, the Bionic Man and the Borg are well known examples of fictional cyborgs. While there are real-life human cyborgs, these tend to be extremely limited. For example, a person might have a pacemaker or other such implant. However, cyborg insects are a reality.

Michael M. Maharbiz and Hirotaka Sato developed an interesting, if disturbing system, for creating cyborg beetles. The gist of the method is to equip a beetle with a “backpack” containing electronics that are linked into the beetle’s muscles and nervous system, allowing the beetle to be driven about (more or less) like a remote control vehicle. The main reason for using cyborgs rather than purely mechanical drones is that beetles are far more effective and efficient flyers than our mechanical creations. As such, it makes practical sense to convert a beetle to a cyborg rather than trying to build a better mechanical beetle.

As far as the uses of such cyborgs, they tend to involve using the beetles much as purely mechanical (and vastly larger) drones are used: to gather information. For example, in some future battle swarms of cyberbeetles might be deployed to look for enemy soldiers within a city. As a more peaceful example, swarms of cyberbeetles might be released into the rubble after a natural disaster to locate survivors. While such cyberbeetles could prove useful, there are still moral questions regarding their creation and use.

One obvious moral concern is that creating the cyberbeetles requires modifying a living organism with technology and effectively enslaving it to serve as a drone. This, of course, actually involves two points of concern, namely the modification and the enslavement.

In terms of the modification, the main concern is that such tampering with living creatures is morally dubious, perhaps because it is unnatural. The challenge is, of course, to develop an account of the natural in which such alterations would be wrong. I will not endeavor to do so here.

In terms of enslavement, the obvious concern is that the beetles are being treated the way that the science fiction monsters the Cybermen and the Borg treat their victims: they simply take control of them with technology and rob them of their own lives. On the face of it, such technological enslavement is wrong whether it involves robbing a human or a beetle of whatever freedom they possess.

The obvious reply is, of course, that the “victims” in this case are just beetles. They do not have much of a life (or lifespan) even in the natural world and hence they are not being wronged. In fact, it could be argued that as valuable tools they would have a better life than in the wild. After all, they would be fed and protected. Presumably the Cybermen would advance similar arguments, should they ever consider the ethics of their actions. That is, the same arguments that are used to justify the enslavement of beetles could be used to justify converting a significant number of humans into human versions of the beetles. This, of course, leads to another moral concern.

While there is obviously a considerable distance between cyborg beetles and creating comparable cyborg humans (basically Cybermen), allowing beetles to be converted into cyborgs is a beetle sized step towards converting higher organisms. After all, if a beetle would make a good flying spy, a bird would make an even better one. Also, imagine the usefulness of converted rats, cats, and dogs. From there it is a much smaller step to creating human cyborgs that are controlled by implants to engage in spying or combat. Enslaving humans in this manner is clearly wrong and the path to this begins, obviously enough, with these beetles.

That said, it is obviously possible to stop before we get to humans—I do not, of course, want to throw out a fallacious slippery slope argument here. However, before going on a journey it is generally wise to consider where it might end.

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