The Inherent Inequality of Biohacking

What happens when not everyone can afford a hacked body?

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Apr 14 2015, 2:00pm

Image: Shawn Rossi/Flickr

The future promises incredible technology that will transform the human body from the weak, failing, vulnerable meatbags we have now into beautiful, terrifying, unstoppable machines. But when enough people start hacking their bodies beyond our current capabilities, what happens to everyone who can't afford these enhancements? Suddenly, a healthy human body is no longer a privilege, but a deficiency—and being a meatbag is no longer good enough.

We can already see a glimpse of this divide in the present day. Most of our biotech developments focus on health care: taking diseased or failing human body parts and replacing them with artificial technology to try to regain the functionality of a healthy human body. It's not about pushing the body beyond its natural capabilities, but about helping people regain capabilities they have lost.

The goal of a prosthesis, for example, is to regain as much of the functionality of the lost limb as possible. We're still not able to perfectly replicate a human limb (we're only in the early stages of being able to recreate the sensation of touch, for example), but that's the goal. Within this area, there have been remarkable advancements, but the most cutting-edge technologies are costly: one bionic hand called the i-limb costs around $100,000.

Even though health insurance often pays for prostheses, they don't usually cover the top-of-the-line technology. This creates a gap already that will only be widened when you consider the possibility of biotech that enhances, rather than restores, the human body's capabilities.

"If you can start modifying your body not to heal something or to fix a disability but in order to enhance your body, there won't be any kind of health insurance that's going to pay," said Bertolt Meyer, a social psychologist at the Chemnitz University of Technology. Meyer was born an amputee and wears an i-limb on his left arm.

Meyer said if we reach a future where technology is developed not to match the capabilities of a healthy human body, but to enhance it, suddenly a new market will emerge. These will be technologies that everyone might want, even those with otherwise healthy bodies. If most people start making modifications, it will change what we think of as an average human body, Meyer said.

"If a lot of people are able to afford a device, a technology, or a surgery that enhances their capabilities, the average capability in society shifts upward," Meyer told me. "That means that something that is normal today will be seen as a shortcoming in the future because a lot of people are 'better than normal' in the future."

"This stuff is going to happen. It's just a question of when."

As an example, Meyer pointed to modern day laser eye surgeries that can enable people to gain 20/10 vision (a person with 20/10 vision can see at 20 feet what a "normal" person can see at 10 feet). If such a procedure became affordable enough that the average person has access to the surgery, perfect 20/20 vision could eventually be considered below-average eyesight. What does that mean for those who have 20/20 vision (or worse) and can't afford surgery? How might the job market change as the average worker is able to do more?

"We're not talking about a faster car. We're talking about technology that will be able to enhance human capabilities," Meyer said.

But technology has exacerbated these kinds of economic gulfs in the past, according to Thad Starner, a computing professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and society has managed to adapt. A few centuries ago, books and manuscripts were only accessible to the wealthiest sliver of the population. Now, most of the world has access to books and written information, often inexpensively or for free through libraries or the internet. Starner said while it took a long time to close the gap between those who had access to books and those who did not, that process is happening more quickly with modern technology.

"When people find something useful, capitalism reinforces democracy," Starner told me. "If the doctors and lawyers who are able to pay $10,000 for their cell phone find it useful, then the first thing a company will want to do is find a bigger market. That means you've got to get the price down."

Starner has developed and worn wearable computers for decades, and worked as a technical lead to help create Google Glass. Much of his research has focused on augmented memory: being able to store information on an external device, like a wearable computer, but quickly retrieve it in real time. Starner said he believes the transition to wearable and embedded biotechnology is inevitable.

"This stuff is going to happen," he said. "It's just a question of when."

Starner said a lot of the timing will have to do with cost and whether people have a need and a desire for the technology at hand. He pointed to Simon, IBM's touchscreen smartphone that debuted in the mid-90s and cost $1,100. Starner said even though the technology was there, the market wasn't. By the time the iPhone debuted in 2007, the technology was more advanced, the price had dropped, and the market was ready. Less than a decade later, 64 percent of Americans own a smartphone, illustrating the more rapidly closing gaps Starner described.

Even Meyer conceded biotech might not compound class divides any more than society already does. Being wealthy already affords one countless privileges that most people around the world don't enjoy, he noted, so there's a chance biotech will just be another drop in the bucket.

But he wasn't as certain as Starner was that this kind of technology is inevitable, suggesting people might balk at the idea of chopping off an otherwise healthy arm to replace it with a bionic limb. Just like the early smartphone, if people aren't willing to adopt the new technology, it won't prevail. And as Meyer pointed out, it's not so hard to imagine the general population feeling hesitant about a transhumanist present.

"It's interesting: whenever you have science fiction that depicts a future where you have people able to enhance the functionality of their bodies with technology, it's always dystopian. It's never a good future. It's always a bad future," Meyer said. "I wonder why that is."

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Meyer is a professor at the University of Zurich. Though he previously worked at the University of Zurich, he now works at theChemnitz University of Technology.

Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.