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In a precedent setting case, the San Jose Child Welfare Agency has sought legal custody today of a six year old boy who was scheduled by his parents to undergo the six hour Union operation to become a biotech. The agency is supported in its action by the maternal grandparents who claim that they have lost their daughter to the Union and that "We are not about to lose our only grandchild to this abomination. "
The agency has brought in experts in biotech metamorphosis who will contend that undergoing such a transformation at this child's age is a violation of his basic human rights and illegal since the boy is not of consenting age. The experts will contend that the operation is dangerous, both physically and psychologically, and that it puts the child at risk unnecessarily.
The parents, although reluctant to comment, did indicate that since they were both biotechs, that they had the right and responsibility to ensure that their son grew up with the same advantages and within their family's new culture.
HSTN, asked the award-winning Social Work Historian, Dr. Paul Besmer, to describe the context and issues involved in this case. The interview with Dr. Besmer follows.
HSTN: Dr. Besmer, what is the background to this case?
Besmer: As your readers may know, individuals began experimenting with the mind-computer interface over two twenty years ago. The Japanese Institute of Science and Technology discussed this connection in the late nineteen eighties and experimentation began about ten years later.
Technology and human aspirations have resulted in cycles of experimentation, commencing with a simple neural, wire computer link, through infrared, and eventually to the actual embedding of computer components within the body.
All these developments meant that technology, again was outpacing our experience and challenging our perceptions of what it means to be human. You may remember the rage that many people expressed when people we now call biotechs first started experimenting with the Union. Religious opponents claimed that the Devil was made out of elemental sand and that through the use of silicone implants, the biotechs were literally grafting evil into their body, heart and soul. The Union, for them, was a communion with the Devil.
There were two other challenges that the biotechs faced early on. The first was social. Their families, friends and the community didn't know how to react to them. Intermarriages were forbidden in many families and people buried their heads whenever they could. Resentment at work, over the biotech's superior capabilities infuriated co-workers and threatened bosses. Families were frequently torn apart when one of their members announced that he or she would be joining.
HSTN: Do you think this may relate to our present case?
Besmer: It's difficult to say. It would not be unusual for this child's parents to have undergone considerable discrimination and thereby forged a very tight relationship based on their uniqueness and perhaps even perceived superiority. The parents may genuinely feel that their type of existence is to be preferred and want this for their child. Indeed, since the child is only human, this may actually affect the parents' acceptance of the child. The biotech communities that have developed have been exceptionally supportive but demanding that all children of biotechs experience the Union. They understand that the future of their species depends on the children.
HSTN: The agency has cited the potential psychological damage that may result from the Union. What is your reaction to this?
Besmer: Well again, I can't speak about this specific case, but there have been documented cases which have described considerable psychological turmoil experienced by individuals undergoing this joining. I remember the celebrated case of Miss X who was worried about how the Union would change her as a person. She wanted all the strengths of the technology side- the perfect memory, the vast repositories of information, the razor-sharp intellect and computational capacities but she feared she would lose some of her human side. Could she love in the same way? Would she taste, feel, smell and touch differently? Worst of all, who would accept her? With whom could she share her life?
Anyway, Miss X decided to have the implant and went to a reputable lab, but in those early days, there was no attention paid to the psychological effects of implantation. The technicians viewed it as a discrete, physical process, and released the patient as soon as she was burned in. Early diagnostics were unreliable and it was not unusual for a patient to experience some processing problems shortly after implantation.
Within two weeks of the operation, Miss X began experiencing some memory difficulties and hid away for a week until she could perform one thousand memory checks reliably. After this debugging, she noticed her increased irritability with colleagues at work who had to use computers to calculate simple quarterly statistical projections. She was able to do this in her head while discussing these projections and without even pausing in her speech.
HSTN: Is this one reason why the agency is contesting this Union?
Besmer: I would expect so. There is a long list of documented problems that have been related to the Union. The interface of human feelings and the technology seems to be particularly problematic. Some biotechs claim their feelings had been enhanced while others believe that their superior thinking abilities overshadow their affect. The recent development of an algorithm for Class II emotions like passion and jealousy has confused the situation even further. The biotechs now can choose whether to burn in the emotion algorithm that both creates and exerts complete control over this class of emotions. Of course, they can temporarily disable the algorithm and continue to experience these emotions in their native form as a part of the natural biological-technological interaction.
HSTN: Has your profession, Social Work, taken a stance on this case?
Besmer: This whole situation has been an ethical nightmare for the profession. Personally, it has challenged what it means to be human. Early on, I believed in the separateness of the mind and machine. The computer, as a machine was a fabulous filing cabinet and processor. The mind was more like a garden, rich with ideas and blossoming with creativity. Now someone has filled the cabinet with soil and the seeds have sprouted.
In terms of your question, at this stage, because it is an ongoing legal case, the profession has not made a statement but there are supporters on both sides among my colleagues. Throughout the history of biotechnology, social workers have offered clinical support in assisting clients to decide whether to complete the Union. This support was followed by counseling to aid adaptation to this new life for those who elected to complete the operation. Generally, the social work approach has been to respect individual choice and self-determination. Some of our professionals have assisted biotech communities to advocate for changes to our human rights legislation. There are currently three social work studies in progress which are comparing the functioning and coping strategies of biotech youths with similar groups of so-called normal youth.
HSTN: Do you expect the case to be settled soon?
Besmer: Not likely since it involves so many contentious issues and dilemmas. This could become another one of those cases where the child, as a person, is forgotten, and the battle is fought on the bigger issues.
Besides my concern with this specific child, there are developments happening which will likely make this case the tip of a giant legal and moral iceberg. I'm sure you're aware of the increasing success in integrating our human components with the technology side. The hardware functions are currently powered by our body's natural current. Recent innovations have included memory supplements that are organic in nature and feed off the body's metabolism. Research has been directed towards exploring how the hard technology components can be crafted in an organic way. In other words, the technology is becoming more human in composition which is paralleling the movement of the human side to the technology. The boundaries between human and machine are blending more each day. The paradox is that the machine is becoming more human and human more machine-like.
HSTN: What might this child be facing now if he experiences the Union?
Besmer: Again, nobody knows for sure, but a child growing up in the early stages of this species revolution would undoubtedly experience considerable discrimination. The biotech culture and communities, exist, in part to buffer these threats. A unique form of religion is emerging from these cultures which identifies new rites of passages and incorporates them into its ritual. The burn-in process has taken on the importance of a baptism in some circles.
Ironically, being so closely tied to technology and its rapid innovations has added excitement for biotechs over their great potentiality. Human beings have a more limited and very slow pace to species' development. Suddenly, biotechnology, has seemingly offered unlimited new potentials and possibilities. In this case, the biotech child will likely experience numerous significant enhancements in his lifetime. Rumors of limitless memory capacity, unbelievable processing abilities, wireless, cellular mind-links with other biotechs are circulating now and feed into both the excitement within the biotech culture and the developing suspicions within the larger public.
HSTN: Thank you for your views on what promises to be a landmark case.
Besmer: You're welcome. I would like to say that the rapid advance of technology has created an ethical minefield for social workers and society generally. While this case should be settled on its own merits and on safeguarding the welfare of this particular child, I am concerned that the issues presented here will make it difficult to divorce the larger issues from this specific situation. Technology has outpaced our vocabulary, concepts and seriously challenged our understanding of humanity, morality and ethics. Somehow within all this complexity and confusion we need to rediscover some simple, basic human. . . . or otherwise . . . truths. It is these truths which will guide us through the minefields.
Questions for Discussion:
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