bertolt

CS Sessions write-up – Bertolt Meyer

Bertolt Mayer

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Dr. of Psychology and resident Channel 4 presenter Bertolt starts off his presentation by pointing out the obvious flaw in my last blog post about him: ‘This lovely gentleman spends his day thinking about a really quite fascinating subject matter: Bionics.’  – Turns out this isn’t very accurate. He fell into the whole Bionics shinding kind of by accident, and actually spends most of his days thinking about social psychology. Oops. At least he definitely IS a very lovely gentleman.

Bertolt was born with a birth defect that means that he needs a hand prosthetic. The standard model wasn’t really all that one could hope for, so he looked into some alternative options.  His search turned out a company that makes his current bionic prosthesis – it has movable fingers and joints that are activated through muscle movement in his arm. It’s pretty unique thing and Bertolt was the first person in Europe to have a prosthesis like this. This, coupled with his natural charisma and great public speaking [my words, not his], is why the BBC ended up inviting him to Jeremy Paxman’s show.

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When Channel 4 asked him to host their programme ‘How to build a bionic man’ a few months later, he was rather startled: “But I already have a job!” Lucky they managed to talk him round in the end, because it got us a really fascinating programme on the telly. The show itself, Bertolt explains, is actually more about the ethical implications of Bionics than the technology itself. Which is where Bertolt’s humanities background and inquisitive spirit came in pretty handy.

There’s an endless array of ethically tricky questions around the subject. One of them: cost and availability.

Bertolt’s prosthetic is incredibly expensive; so expensive in fact that the NHS won’t cover its cost even when it’s the best solution for a patient. A British 14-year old boy with the same birth defect had to get sponsorship from Microsoft before he could afford it, because the NHS wouldn’t cough up. But can we really condemn this when there’s clearly not enough funds to give expensive treatments like this to everyone who could benefit from them?

And what happens when bionic technology starts outperforming the originals? Could we allow people to replace their biological hearts with bionic ones just because they work better? It might sound ludicrous, but a similar case has already been in the news: A guy had an accident which limited his hand function quite severely. He decided to amputate his hand and replace it with a bionic prosthetic because that gave him more movement.

It makes sense, but replacing body parts with bionic ones to improve body functions is a sliding slope. What stops us from creating super humans or Terminator-like androids? Just because we could, doesn’t mean we should. Where’s the line and how do we draw it?

Another startling development with bionics is that it’s changing the face of disability. South-African runner Oscar Pistorius whose legs were amputated below the knee, is said to have ‘an unfair advantage’ due to his J-shaped carbon-fibre prosthetics (the “Flex-Foot Cheetah“) which are lighter than human legs and have been optimized for running on all surfaces – people have started calling it ‘techno-doping’. It’s amazing how disabilities that used to be regarded as pitiful are now turning into quite the opposite: threatening.

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Bertolt explains, that when we regard people as having better abilities than us, this can either be a warm stereotype (i.e. we admire them) or a cold one (i.e. we envy and distrust them). It remains to be seen if people like Oscar Pistorius whose diability has made him strong and successful will fall into the warm or the cold category.

It’s scary to think what the future may hold: Already we’re developing technologies that are mind-boggling, and who knows what research will discover next. As we advance further and further into bionics, it’s important to keep thinking about the ethical implications of what we’re doing. Humans’ curious nature has brought us all the advancements we enjoy today, but can also lead us to dangerous morally grey areas.

 

A ma-HOO-sive THANKS to our partner Microsoft for curating this event with us, bringing in some truly inspirational speakers and providing us with such a beautiful venue. None of this would’ve have been possible without you. We’re looking forward to more awesome collaborations like this!

 

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Big thanks also to Directory and the IPA for all their on-going support.

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