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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4 Responses

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  1. Sharanga said, on December 8, 2012 at 1:50 am

    Cyborg doesn’t necessarily mean enslaved. The reason the beetles need to be enslaved is because they just don’t know how to spy. On the other hand, if you take a human, he/she is trained how to spy so the technological components will only be there to enhance their capabilities, not to enslave them.

    But of course it is possible such technology can used to enslave humans, but that is hardly an argument against this technology anymore than the fact that fire burns humans too is an argument against discovering fire, or the fact that an atomic bomb can destroy Hiroshima is an argument against developing nuclear physics.

    Unless the drawbacks outweigh the benefits, we should go ahead with it, and I don’t think those drawbacks outweighs the benefits.

    By the way, nuking the enemy would be much cheaper, quicker and easier than creating a slave army to fight them.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 8, 2012 at 8:17 am

      True, cybernetics is not limited to “mind control”, but my focus is on that aspect of the technology. I am in favor of medical cybernetics, such as artificial replacements for lost limbs and organs.

      While nuking would get the job done, that is not always the job that politicians want done. There would be many viable uses for controlled people. For example, key people could be re-wired to serve in this role (either passively as living cameras or actively).

      • Sharanga said, on December 8, 2012 at 10:13 pm

        What you seem to be saying, as I understood it, that since mind-controlling technology can be used to enslave people, we shouldn’t go through with it. I don’t think this argument alone is sufficient to come to that conclusion. You can say similar stuff about GPS technology, internet, and pretty much any other technology.

        I’m not saying that there aren’t moral and ethical issues associated with mind-controlling. But I think we should apply our judgement on a case by case basis, instead of completely dismissing the entire technology. There could be benefits to mind-controlling. For example, we’d be able to cure psychopaths.

        What I think is, there’s a risk associated with any new technology. But in the past, we took that risk, and that’s why we aren’t living in caves anymore.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 9, 2012 at 7:34 am

          No, I’m not saying we shouldn’t develop the technology. As you note, technology can (and generally is) misused.

          As you note, there could be positive aspects to control electronics. There will probably some very positive spin offs from the research, such as developing ways to treat brain and muscle disorders.

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