Nieuws - 22 maart 2012

Science Café: The ethics of a real-life cyborg

The cyborgs are here! OK, there are no Darth Vaders or Terminators roaming the streets yet, but more and more people are not made entirely of organic matter. They have pacemakers, for example, or implanted electrodes.

This month, the Wageningen Science Café will be all about cyborgs and the ethical questions they raise. The guests are psychiatrist Damiaan Denys of the University of Amsterdam and technology philosopher Paul Verbeek of the University of Twente. Both make clear that they are not coming to indulge in far-fetched speculations or science fiction.
‘There are already an awful lot of real ethical problems', says Denys. He researches deep-brain stimulation, involves implanting an electrode to stimulate certain regions of the brain. This has been used for some time to treat Parkinson's disease, but Denys uses it for psychiatric patients who do not respond to other treatments.
It's this or death
In doing so, he encounters all sorts of problems. For example, some patients threaten suicide in order to get themselves referred for treatment. In other cases, the therapy does not reduce the symptoms but the patient does become a lot happier. Or the treatment does work, but at the cost of a change in character. This faces Denys and his patients with painful decisions. And yet Denys believes there are plenty of possibilities for these patients: ‘For them it is often a case of: it's this or death.'
According to Verbeek, the brain implantations raise a great many questions because they touch on issues of personal freedom. But he does not believe the answer lies in keeping the technology at bay, even though he does urge caution in how we use it. With the help of ethics. ‘People and technology are not two separate domains, with ethics patrolling the border', says Verbeek. ‘You cannot understand human beings without reference to technology. With each new technology, humanity reinvents itself.' This provokes resistance, but that has always been the case. Even when people learned to write or could see clearly again thanks to spectacles.
29 March, 20.00 hours, Café Loburg, with live music by Too Square. Science Café Wageningen is an initiative by Resource and others.