Friday, September 11, 2015

EU – Commission Ethical Aspects of ICT Implants in the Human Body

The following text is an extract from the European Group on Ethics and New Technologies with the Swedish Professor Goran Hermerén as chairman, adopted and delivered to the EU-Commission 16th of  March 2005.


Brain-computer interface (BCI) or direct brain control: the technologies involved above are communication technologies: they take information from the brain and externalize it. There are internalizing technologies whose purpose is to take information from the outside and provide individual access to it.

Biosensors or MEMS (Micro Electro-Mechanical System) devices are sensors implanted inside the human body for accurate monitoring of inaccessible parts of the body. The biosensors form a network and collectively monitor the health condition of their host.

The information to be transmitted is crucial medical information that is required by law to be secure. Consequently, information technology is a critical component of these biological implants that, with the energy, memory and computational capabilities, present challenging research issues.

Computer scientists have predicted that within the next twenty years neural interfaces will be designed that will not only increase the dynamic range of sensors, but will also enhance memory and enable cyber think – invisible communication with others. Artificial Vision: according to recent research undertaken to develop an artificial retina, it will be possible, one day, to see light in the infrared.

Human Dignity

Dignity is used both to convey the need for absolutely respecting an individual’s autonomy and rights and to support the claim to controlling individuals and their behaviour for the sake of values that someone plans to impose on other individuals.

- Non-instrumentalisation: The ethical requirement of not using individuals merely as a means but always as an end of their own.

- Privacy: The ethical principle of not invading a person’s right to privacy.

- Informed Consent: The ethical principle that patients are not exposed to treatment or research without their free will and informed consent.

- The Precautionary Principle: This principle entails the moral duty of continuous risk assessment with regard to the not fully foreseeable impact of new technologies as in the case of ICT implants in the human body. This assessment concerns particularly the analysis of present and future situations in which the use of ICT implants in the human body may be considered as a potential risk, or even as a potential threat to human dignity or to other ethical principles. It should be stressed that there are no reliable scientific investigations concerning the long-term health aspect of ICT implants in the human body.

Autonomy and Limits on ICT Implants

As regards external controls and influence, autonomy of the individual becomes especially important in connection with the right to rule out that a person’s conduct may be determined and/or influenced by the entities managing electronic links – if the latter give rise to permanent connections with external entities.


Contemporary society is confronted with changes that have to do with the anthropological essence of individuals. There is a stepwise shift in progress – after being observed, via video surveillance and biometrics, individuals are being modified, via various electronic devices, under skin chips and smart tags, to such an extent that they are increasingly turned into networked individuals. Thus we might be continuously connected and could be configured differently so that from time to time we would transmit and receive signals allowing movements, habits and contacts to be traced and defined. This would be bound to modify the meaning and contents of an individuals’ autonomy and to affect their dignity…This unrelenting erosion of personal prerogatives – going as far as transforming the body – co-exists not only with the growing attention paid to dignity, but also with the already mentioned fact that the person is at the centre of the constitutional order.

Value Conflicts

There could be a conflict between the personal freedom to use one’s economic resources to get an implant that will enhance one’s physical and mental capabilities and what  society at large considers desirable or ethically acceptable.  Another value conflict concerns the potential conflicts between limiting the freedom of people dangerous to others by surveillance and promoting the safety of others. Freedom of researchers may conflict with the obligation to safeguard the health of research subjects. Concern for economic competiveness and other economic values may come in conflict with respect for human dignity. The unrestricted freedom of some may endanger the health and safety for others…

As in other areas, the freedom to use ICT implants in ones own body, i.e. the principle of freedom itself might collide with potential negative social effects. In these cases ethical counselling as well as social and political debate might be necessary…Legislation is necessary in order to avoid a situation in which society is becoming more and more dependent on such intrusive technology in order to provide social security while at the same time the technical perfection of such implants is helpful for all kinds of medical purposes as well as for legitimate social applications. Consequently, the EGE stresses the need for a continuing, inclusive debate on which kinds of enhancement should be allowed – under what conditions and in which situations.

It is clear from the preceding sections that there are important knowledge gaps that are relevant both to future research programmes and to the primary ethical concerns. These include:

Human Dignity, Integrity and Autonomy

- How far can such implants be a threat to human autonomy particularly when they are implanted in our brains?

- How far can such implants have irreversible impacts in the human body and/or in the human psyche and how can reversibility be preserved?

- How will they influence human memory?

- Does a human being cease to be such a ’being’ in cases where some parts of his or her body – particularly the brain – are substituted and/or supplemented by ICT implants? Particularly as ICT implants can contribute to creating ’networked persons’ that are always connected and could be configured differently so that from time to time they can transmit and receive signals allowing movements, habits and contacts to be traced and defined. This is bound to affect their dignity.

Privacy and Surveillance

- How far can ICT implants become a threat to privacy?

- How far can ICT implants give an individual, or a group, specific capabilities that could become a threat to society?

- What are the potential invasions of privacy through ICT implants as sources and/or receivers of information in a network environment?

- How far should we be subject to the control of such devices or by other people using these devices?

Enhancement and Human Self Awareness

- Does the creation of an improved ’race’ on the basis of ICT enhancements mean necessarily a new form of racism? The potential industrial use of ICT implants raises the question of the limits of such implants for the creation of more efficient bodies and brains for economic purposes. The question of the use of ITC implants as a cultural leap in human evolution, similar to the invention of machines or to the invention of devices complementing and enhancing such devices as human memory (though writing, printing, digital technology) or other human capabilities.

- How far should the use of such implants to enhance human capabilities be allowed?

- How far can such implants be considered as a part of what can be called ’body design’ including the personal free design of one’s (enhanced) bodily and psychic capabilities?

Social Aspects

- How far do we transform our social and cultural environment through ICT implants.

- To what extent does this technology allow manipulation by and for advertising?

- To what extent might this technology be misused by the military?

- ICT Implants for which Special Caution is Necessary

- ICT implants that cannot be removed easily.

- ICT implants that influence, determine or change psychic functions.

- ICT implants that due to their network capability could be misused in several ways for all kinds of social surveillance and manipulation, such as for instance in the case of children or disabled persons.

- ICT implants influencing the nervous system and particularly the brain and thus human identity as a species as well as individual subjectivity and autonomy

- Military applications

- Intrusive’ technology by-passes normal sensory experience

- Implants that will influence biologically and/or culturally future generations.

To improve the protection of privacy (data protection), respecting people’s right to maintain boundaries and also to preserve privacy, autonomy and confidentiality; and  to empower individuals against the introduction of systems likely to reduce their freedom and autonomy (video surveillance, behaviour control and personal profiling based on internet transactions) are likely to increase people’s dependency on selection and decision mechanisms which are not transparent or understandable.

Human beings are neither purely natural nor purely cultural beings. Indeed our very nature depends on the possibility of transforming ourselves. Information technologies have been considered under this anthropomorphic bias as extensions of man. However, the transformation of the human body has consequences also on the cultural human environment.

Under these premises, human beings are seen as parts of a complex system of natural and artificial messages that function on a digital basis…In this sense the human body can be seen as data. This view has large cultural effects particularly as it precludes higher level phenomena such as human psyche and human language or conceives them mainly under the perspective of its digitalization, giving rise to reductionism that oversimplifies the complex relations between the human body, language and imagination…Extrapolating into the future, this logic might even lead to the transformation of the human race.

How far should we let ICT devices get ’under our skins’? When do ICT implants threaten the dignity of the human body, its identity and its basic capabilities? When might such devices be used for instance for surveillance and in which cases would this be legitimate? Where are the threats related to the hopes of enhanced capability based on ICT implants?

The question of ITC implants in the human body is thus located between two extremes. On the one hand, the protection of the natural human body, that is to say, the medical use of ICT implants for health care, and, on the other hand, the elimination of the human body as we know it today and its substitution by an artificial one – with all possibilities in between. Human dignity concerns the human self as an embodied self. Thus the question of autonomy and respect of the self cannot be separated from the question of bodily care and the possible changes due to ICT implants.


Against this background, the European Group on Ethics of Science and New Technologies submits the following Opinion:

The downright reduction of our body to a device does not only enhance the trend – already pointed out – towards turning it increasingly into a tool to allow continuous surveillance of individuals.  Indeed, individuals are dispossessed of their own bodies and thereby of their own autonomy. The body ends up being under others’ control. What can a person expect after being dispossessed of his or her own body?


The respect for the human dignity must be the fundamental basis of discussions of where the limits should be drawn for different uses of ICT implants. However, even in these cases, the use of such implants should not result in any discrimination or abuse contrary to human rights. To the extent that an individual via an ICT implant has become part of a part of an ICT network, the operation of this whole network – not just the ICT implant – needs to be considered. It is particularly important that the power over this network is transparent. This is based on the principle of respect for persons, as well as the principle of avoiding harm.

Freedom of Research

Although the necessity for research can sometimes be questioned, new knowledge is essential for the development of individuals and societies. However, the freedom of research has to be restricted by respect for other important values and ethical principles, for example respect for persons and the obligation to avoid physical, mental and economic harm as a result of participation in research.

The EGE stresses that the following possibilities should be banned:

- ICT implants used as a basis for cyber-racism

- ICT implants used for changing the identity, memory, self perception and perception of others

- ICT implants used to enhance capabilities in order to dominate others

ICT Implants for Surveillance Purposes

ICT implants for surveillance in particular threaten human dignity. They could be used by state authorities, individuals and groups to increase their power over others.

Public Debate and Information

A broad social and political debate is needed as to what kind of applications should be accepted and legally approved, particularly concerning  surveillance and enhancement. A precautionary approach is recommended by the EGE. The Member States and their national ethics councils have a responsibility to create conditions for education and constructive, well-informed debates in this area.
The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies

The Chairperson: Göran Herméren
The Members:

Nicos C. Alivizatos, Inez de Beuaufort, Rafael Capurro, Yvon Englert, Catherine Labrusse-Riou, Anne M cLaren, Linda Nielsen, Pere Puigdomenech-Rosell,  Stefano Rodota, Günter Virt and Peter Whittaker

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