Technology that gets under your Skin

Should technology perfect humans? The fusion of man and machine was interdisciplinary focal point at the Daimler and Benz Foundation’s 18th Berlin Colloquium. Experts in medicine, neuroscience, technology, and law, as well as ethics and philosophy are taking a closer look at neuroimplants, neuroprotheses, and brain operations. Technical devices that are implanted into the human body and connected to the nervous system are opening up new dimensions of modern diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. Yet do they change our understanding of who we are as human beings? The scientific director is Prof. Dr. Thomas Stieglitz of the Institute for Microsystems Technology at the University of Freiburg – a specialist in Human Enhancement, thus the improvement of human ability by technical means.

Prof. Thomas Stieglitz with exemplary implant positioning. Photo: Daimler und Benz Stiftung/Oestergaard
Prof. Thomas Stieglitz with exemplary implant positioning.  Photo: Daimler und Benz Stiftung/Oestergaard

??? You are an engineer and working on the interface between technology, medicine, and ethics. How did you come upon this?
Stieglitz: Biology and physics already fascinated me at school. During my ambulance service, I came into contact with medicine and experienced the emotional strain of chronically ill patients. From this was my motivation to develop technology for these people.

??? Human Enhancement, or the improvement of man, poses new research questions. What kinds of specialists are most urgently needed from today’s perspective?
Stieglitz: In principle, we need all of them ­– whether medical, technical, or life scientists, lawyers, business economists, or philosophers. Most important, I believe, is a having mutual understanding, an interest in each other’s field of research, and creativity that is not tamed by hierarchy. This requires openness and courage. Only then can innovations, which are supposed to help people, find their way into practical application. Often, very simple matters decide on the success or failure of a new technology – for instance, whether it is possible to stably fixate a cable to its casing.

??? Operations to the brain are associated with fear and can cause changes in personality. How can individuals and society deal with this?
Stieglitz: It must be clear to all participants that each patient is an individual case with differently distinct levels of suffering. Thus, an operation to the brain must always be decided on an individual basis. As a society, we must fundamentally think about what we wish for, what is ethical, and if our laws are sufficient – for instance, concerning­ personal liability. Because paradoxes, like in the science fiction author Stanislaw Lem’s “Are You There, Mister Jones?” in which man turns more and more into an artificial product, are not going to first arise in a distant future when complete cyborgs are perhaps created!

Ecce cortex! Photo: Daimler und Benz Stiftung/Oestergaard
Ecce cortex!   Photo: Daimler und Benz Stiftung/Oestergaard

??? At which point does your trust in technology end, or respectively what, in your opinion, limits science in the improvement of human abilities?
Stieglitz: Presumably, it will not be possible to reconnect the nerve fibres in the case of paraplegia in a way that the affected person is able to walk again without limitations. However, to allay fears: we will not be able to understand enough of the brain to fully virtualize man, so that he becomes an artificial product or cyborg. In spite of all the support through methods and technologies, it is only man who is capable of making reasonable decisions under precarious circumstances. Only humans are really good at that, and this is where the boundaries of science become apparent.

??? That which is intended for the benefit of humans can, however, harm them as well. How high do you estimate the risk of abuse?
Stieglitz: Of course such medical-technical operations can be used destructively, and this will occur – for instance, in military application when healthy people are technically “improved”. Having said that, I believe honest information to society on the dangers and possibilities of Human Enhancement are imperative. I hope for an accompanying public discourse aiming to create societal consensus on one or the other issue.

??? What is your personal outlook for the year 2030 and what do you hope for?
Stieglitz: I think we will be able to continue to ease many people’s suffering by improving established therapies in the next few years and in some cases we might even be able to cease it. At the same time, I hope for a pragmatic and results-based approach and also that our field of research does not rush into every technological hype, such as nano- and pico-technology, as most processes in the body run electrically. We must clarify open questions – such as those regarding the casing, pathways, and multichannel connectors – so that the innovative aid devices work safely, durably, and stably.

??? Where does Germany stand in international comparison?
Stieglitz: We are very well positioned in research and industry. For more than fifty years now, Germany is the world market leader in prosthetics, stereotaxie, and neurology. This results in a responsibility to continue pushing forward in gaining knowledge and to justly distribute our high-tech medicine around the globe.

??? Why are you committed to the Daimler and Benz Foundation’s Berlin Colloquium?
Stieglitz: It is time that Human Enhancement obtains a visible public presence in all of its facets. The Berlin Colloquium provides a suitable platform for us to devote ourselves to the field in an interdisciplinary and neutral manner for a whole day. Regarding the societal discourse, we do not only reach a professional audience but also the interested public.

Infos: Daimler and Benz Foundation

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Anlaufstelle in Pune


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