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Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Rise of the Machine (and the social issues that will emerge)



The power of Newsmap
As I perused newsmap today (thank you SEGATECH!), I came across the article which discusses the first thought controlled prosthesis and I am struck by how rapidly things can change.

The First Thought Controlled Prosthesis
This first merge between human thought and a robotic prosthesis suddenly blurs the line between human and the machinery/robotics that until this point have been distinctly separate from us.

As we discuss the history of computing, my computer science class has been talking about the next evolution in computing.

And then it happened under our nose. So, I posted this question for next week's computer science consideration:

An article appeared today about the first thought controlled prosthesis that has been created by the military. http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/nationworld/bal-te.bionic14sep14,0,5964038.story?coll=bal-nationworld-headlines

As we have begun to discuss biologic computing, I have the following question.

How will we classify things as human or machine? Is this person classified as a human or a machine? What if over 50% of a person is made of machine parts? What are they?

What types of problems can or will emerge from the use of robotics to improve the life of amputees? Do you see any potential problems?


Sometimes I just have to say "Oh, my goodness!" Technology is so ingrained in our lives and is becoming such a part of everything! We tend to relegate the discussion of it to the computer classroom that most college prep kids do not even have access to!

Ethics are vital to our future as a society!
What will happen in the future without ethics and meaningful discussions occuring at even the youngest levels. Just because we can does that mean we should?

Let me throw some "what ifs" at you. And if you think this is far reaching, remember that America is a society where people change their eye color, hair color, and the shape of their face or body parts on a whim. Don't think this won't become an issue, because it will!

  • A boy who has a muscule weakness and cannot build muscle wants to play football. Can he augment his strength or would he damage his arms so that he could receive a super human prosthesis?
  • As prostheses become stronger and more useful, will these "super" humans be allowed to compete in sports or will prosthesis be considered sort of a steroid of the future? Can you imagine the heated debates that will occur at the top levels of sporting organizations? (Look at the money made by NFL players, from a return on investment perspective, "making" such players could be profitable!)
  • As these items become more a part of humans, our current security screening procedures will certainly need to evolve.
  • Could detachable prosthesis be developed for those working in industrial environments to allow better control of things? (e.g. the steel worker who could reach into a furnace with a titanium arm that he controls.)
  • If such prosthesis are developed for industrial environments, what will be done to ensure that sweatshops take on a whole new sinister side as people are "added to" like computer hardware?
  • The amputees of today may become the "superheroes" of tomorrow. What will that do to our society? (Is psuedo X-men possible? I shudder to think!)
You may feel that these thoughts are silly, but human nature is that any time there are differences, the human tendency to discrimination and misunderstanding emerges and I predict that it will in this issue as well.

I am grateful for the opportunity amputees have to improve their lives so much! This is truly a wonderful thing! I know an amazing man who graduated one year ahead of me from high school, his name is Scott Rigsby and he is an inspiration.

He is the first double leg amputee to compete in an Olympic triathalon while running on prosthetics and is going to be the first double leg amputee to compete in an iron man!

If you read the article about Scott
, you'll see that the turning point in his life was to amputate his "good" leg which could not hold up to the running and exercise he was trying to do. Having two prosthetics has improved his life. He is truly amazing and you'll be a better person if you read about him!

But I still come back to how some could misuse this and the plethora of ethical questions that will ultimately emerge.

Technological ethics

Like reading and writing, technological ethics and literacy should be a cross curricular issue, and I believe that every student should have an introduction to computer science course. Of all of the courses I teach, my students tell me that this one transforms their lives and thinking the most.

What do you think about the merging of human and robotics? What does this type of issue mean for the classroom? How does it change or not change what we teach?

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