Impact Ethics

Radical Technology, Bodyhacking, & Medicine

Michele Battle-Fisher calls on conventional medical to consider how acts of healing will change in the context of transhumanism.

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Humanness is in flux as human bodies are being hacked (altered) by transhumanists and others in their quest for super wellness, super intelligence and super longevity.

Bodyhacking refers to changing the human body in appearance and function using a “device, technique or procedure that an individual CHOOSES to utilize, augment, modify or improve their body.” Examples of bodyhacking include implanting magnets under one’s skin to be able to open a garage door, and implanting an engineered human ear on one’s arm to gain hypersensory abilities. Typically, such ‘hacks’ are not approved by governmental agencies or traditional medical insurance. According to Body Hacking Con, while bodyhacking is typically considered fringe, bodyhackers are “simply people who hack (alter) their bodies.”

Bodyhacking is part of a counterculture movement that is often called transhumanism. Transhumanists believe that the body is obsolete and that death is a cruel end to be avoided. In their view, the time is ripe for taking advantage of fast-paced technologies to improve our imperfect bodies and eventually cheat death.

Recent revolutionary innovations such as CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology are helping to further push the boundaries of bodyhacking by fighting the genetic causes of death. While the medical community has accepted the idea of somatic cell gene editing, germline gene editing remains controversial.  There is much excitement in the transhumanist community that biohacks such as CRISPR will move from the purvue of controlled medical settings to the at-home, do-it-yourself labs. With do-it-yourself CRISPR kits, bodyhackers could further push the biological limits of humaness.

With transhumanists’ access to revolutionary technologies, such as CRISPR, there are several ethical questions worth exploring: Will bodyhacking of germline cells harm future generations? Will new hacked genomes be susceptible to troublesome mutations? Should persons who choose to be hacked outside of the conventional medical context, be allowed to assume the unknown risks? Radical human modifications are no longer science fiction and we need to seriously reflect on available choices.

Moreover, we should be mindful of the fact that the transhumanist movement is becoming politically organized. For example, in 2016, Zoltan Istvan became the first Transhumanist Party candidate to run for the President of the United States. And, in Canada, there is a Transhumanist Party which is peripherally associated with the global Transhumanist party.

Conventional medicine should pay attention to the transhumanist movement. Why? Because in the not so distant future, as patients’ bodies are increasingly being hacked outside of the realm of conventional medical care, patients will soon present with bodies not yet diagrammed in Gray’s Anatomy.

Now is the time for the medical community to discuss how best to think about acts of healing when dealing with bodies that have been hacked to exceed natural physical limits (sometimes described in terms of species typical functioning). Presently medicine is in the business of health spanning – attempting to cheat the time boundary of life while providing the best quality of life until death. According to transhumanists, however, death is unnecessary and undermines the possibilities to evolve humans.

Furthermore, there are important questions for bioethics to consider as we hurtle towards the post human era that is promised by transhumanism. Can or should medicine accept radical technologies born outside of conventional medicine? How will conventional medicine define humanness? Must that definition change? How will conventional medicine deal with technology aimed at altering humanness and blasting away any limitations on human physiology?

In the face of transhumanism and the development of revolutionary technologies, such as CRISPR, we must be more than passive creatures waiting to be hacked. We must actively engage with the physical, medical, and social possibilities as well as the limits of bodyhacking. I, for one, am anxious to observe how conventional medicine and radical modifications will play together or move apart into their respective social and scientific corners.

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Michele Battle-Fisher is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in the United States. @mbattlefisher