When tech implants makes us part robot, will we still have human rights?

17 March 2019 - 00:00 By Lisa Witepski


Scientists believe that the merger between humans and robots, resulting in an augmented "super race", is just a few decades away. But what happens to human rights when we're, well, no longer human?
Picture this: thanks to your contact lenses (embedded with Augmented Reality, which overlays your physical world with virtual images from the Internet), your vision exceeds 20/20. You're wearing a Babbelfish hearing aid, which automatically translates any language in real time. Inside your veins, embedded nanobots regulate your red and white blood cells, adjusting your metabolism and fatigue rates so that they function optimally, even during extreme sports.
A 5G chip, embedded in your brain, means that you are constantly connected to the Internet and everything that is published on it. This, according to futurist Craig Wing of FutureWorld Partner, is what's in store for us - and we don't have too long to wait, either.
If you find the idea of becoming a cyborg offputting, consider the argument that we are already so attached to our phones that we have all but absorbed their technology. Embedded technology, like Elon Musk's neural lace, a mesh which is implanted in the brain to control brain function, is merely the final stage in the metamorphosis.
But what rights and responsibilities will superhumans of tomorrow enjoy or be subject to, given that the world's framework was constructed for us ordinary, un-augmented and deeply flawed folk?
There's no easy answer. Nor is there likely to be one for some time, says Danny Saksenberg, co-founder of Emerge and a member of the EDM Council. "Developments in the AI and nanotechnology fields simply move too quickly. Legislation can't keep up," he says. That's not the only challenge: typically, the people charged with regulating the technology industry lack technical knowledge, while the technical experts aren't especially au fait with ethical issues.
This adds a complicated dimension to an industry already heavily shaded with grey areas. One of the problems here, Saksenberg explains, is that it is characterised by smaller groups working independently on their own research and projects. When their groundbreaking findings are published in the greater domain, there's nothing stopping other groups with less-than-noble intentions from building on them.
SECURITY IS CRUCIAL
Vladimir Dashchenko, Head of the Vulnerabilities Research Group at Kaspersky Lab ICS CERT, brings up security. It's all very well to have a bionic hand which can be adjusted remotely, but what if it is possible for hackers to programme that hand? "That's why security for these devices is crucial," he says.
Global authorities aren't blind to the inherent dangers of galloping technology development, especially when it's in the hands - literally - of humans. Wayne Flemming, founder and managing partner of BrandTruth/DGTL, reports that the Council of Europe met in Helsinki in early March to discuss the impacts of artificial intelligence on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
"This underlines the need for supervisory mechanisms and oversight structures concerning AI," Flemming comments, adding that the finding of the Commissioner of Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, is that it is up to humans to steer AI, rather than the other way around. This is all the more important given that AI is as able to destroy the life we desire as enhance it.
So it's ironic that most legislation and regulation available concerns robot rights. Wing points to the example of a seven-year-old Japanese chatbot, dubbed Shibuya Mirai, who has been granted residence. Mirai lives online, as part of an initiative to make local government more accessible.
But, asks Wing: "As a resident with rights, if Mirai gives incorrect information that leads to damage, whether financially or personally, is it liable for the damage, or will the liability cede with its designers and engineers? Or by granting rights, have we shifted responsibility?"
FULL CITIZENSHIP
Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, a robot named Sophia has been granted full citizenship. Interestingly, unlike her real-life female counterparts, Sophia can discard her headscarf and doesn't require a male escort at all times, informs Elaine Bergenthuin, managing partner at De Beers Attorneys. Essentially, she has greater legal rights.
But what about people who have become robot-like, rather than the other way around? This is where lines become particularly blurry, says Wing. After all, he says, philosophers, humanitarians and scholars have spent centuries debating what it means to be human. And what if you throw in the argument that emotions are nothing more than chemical responses to external stimuli, and that the soul and consciousness - those most cherished human values - are simply social constructs?
"When we start to augment humans, notions of consciousness and soul become even more opaque. Is consciousness being aware? Once we can be 'plugged' into the internet, we are more 'aware' as information and data are instantaneous and all information readily available. Likewise, if we can connect our consciousness online, will it live forever? This leads to questions such as who 'owns' our soul, or the concept of immortality - all questions linked to the popular notion of the singularity: when machines and humans merge and possibly, Artificial Intelligence becomes sentient," he states.
There is no uncertainty regarding the fact that the emergence of a race of superhumans will amplify the divides between haves and have-nots, making today's inequalities insignificant by comparison.
Says Saksenberg: "Technological enhancement is obviously an option only for those who have money: If you have a little bit of something, you'll end up having even more of it. People who are able to modify themselves will be able to accrue even more because their enhanced abilities create greater opportunities for them, so the unenhanced will fall further behind."
He points out that we already consider machines and their abilities superior to us (would you rather trust a calculator or your own brain, for example) - so what are the implications for people who are part machine? Is it just a matter of time until we see "augmentism" (as Wing calls it) join racism, ageism and sexism as another channel for discrimination?
It's clear that we'll need comprehensive global policies to make sure that this isn't the case, but Wing is concerned with yet another aspect of the developing superhumans.
"Once we're able to upload our consciousness and possibly even our memories, when we start to augment humans, notions of consciousness and soul become even more opaque. Who will own our eternal presence?"

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.



Questions or problems? Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.