Opinion of the European group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies to the European Commission regarding Ethical aspects of ICT implants (information and communcation implants) in the human body

N° 20 Adopted on 16/03/2005
Original in English

Information and communication technologies (ICT) pervade our lives. Thus far, this pervasive influence has mainly involved devices that we use for private purposes or at the work place such as personal computers, mobile phones, laptops and the like. Due to new developments these devices are becoming more and more part of our bodies, either because we wear them (wearable computing) or because they are implanted in our bodies.

At first sight ICT implants are ethically unproblematic if we think for instance about cardiac pacemakers. However, although ICT implants may be used to repair deficient bodily capabilities they can also be misused, particularly if these devices are accessible via digital networks. One might even think of such devices as a threat to human dignity and particularly to the integrity of the human body (see Section 5), while for others such implants might be seen primarily as a means for restoring damaged human capabilities and therefore as a contribution to the promotion of human dignity.

The idea of letting ICT devices get under our skin in order not just to repair but even to enhance human capabilities gives rise to science fiction visions with threat and/or benefit characteristics. However, in some cases, the implantation of microchips is already taking place with the potential for individual and social forms of control.

The intimate relation between bodily and psychic functions is basic to our personal identity. Modern neurosciences are emphasising this view. Language and imagination influence in a unique way our perception of time and space; the way we perceive ourselves and others; the way we relate to other non-human living beings and to the natural environment; the way we create historically, culturally, politically, legally, economically, and technically our societies; the way we acquire knowledge about ourselves and about the world; and the way we produce, create, and exchange things.

ICT devices are the products of human invention. The functions they achieve are based on programmable or algorithmic calculations mostly using non-biological substances such as silicon. This allows a simulation of some biological and psychic functions11. Furthermore, it is in principle, and today also in practice, possible to implant ICT devices in the human body in order
to restore bodily functions or, as in the case of prostheses and artificial limbs, to substitute some body parts.

These are the essential reasons why potential and actual ICT implants in the human body have large and important ethical consequences.

Consequently, the objective of this Opinion is primarily to raise awareness and questions concerning the ethical dilemmas created by a range of ICT implants in this rapidly expanding field. Ethical awareness and analysis must take place now in order to ensure an appropriate and timely impact on the various technological applications. Nevertheless, where necessary this Opinion proposes clear ethical boundaries, legal principles and suggests several steps that should be taken by responsible regulators in Europe. The Opinion focuses on ICT implants in the human body (see Section 6.1).


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