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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Human-machine interaction

Between artificial intelligence and human enhancement

Thematic area: Biomedical technologies
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on the Digital Agenda
Status: completed
Duration: 2014 till 2016

Background and central aspects of the topic

The digitization of society is advancing rapidly. Characteristic of these dynamics is an exponential increase of the calculating capacity of computers on the one hand linked to increasing miniaturization, integration and price reduction of the relevant technical components on the other hand. In connection with developments in the fields of neurosciences and nanotechnology, this opens up new technical opportunities, primarily in the fields of industry, medicine/care as well as military/security which are increasingly questioning the traditional boundaries between humans and machines. Significant innovations are being made at different levels and are aiming at the brain-computer interface, the use of prostheses (neuroprostheses, exoskeletons) and the technical optimization of robots and their subcomponents, e.g. by means of sensor technology, miniaturization, energy supply, use of artificial high-strength muscles etc. Concrete application examples are automated service robots, which are already used occasionally in households or for care purposes, or neuroimplants and neuroprostheses which help to partly overcome or compensate deafness or blindness (i.a. by using microcomputers).

These new technical options not only offer the opportunity of compensating for deficits caused by a disease or accident, but – as a matter of principle – it is possible already now to enhance the mental and physical performance of humans in a targeted way by means of technical extensions used in or on the human body, e.g. by means of exoskeletons, implants or smart glasses. For quite some time already, there is a controversial debate about the key word »human enhancement« concerning the question of the extent to which such a merger of humans and technology and thus the humans' increasing dependence on technology is desirable for society and justifiable with regard to ethical and moral aspects. The color-blind artist Neil Harbisson, who is able to »hear« colors by means of an electronic eye and an implanted chip, is an example showing that the mainly philosophical issues prove to be more topical than ever before against the background of present developments. Thus, for a long time already, »machine people« – so-called cyborgs – are not a mere futuristic vision any longer. This raises fundamental questions: Where is the boundary between man and machine? What consequences will be involved for our society, if such technical extensions – which for the time being probably would be affordable only for a very restricted number of people – begin to become established?

In parallel to the increasing technicality of humans, a gradual assimilation of externally acting machines to humans is taking place. Today already, machine learning by means of large data volumes is an established phenomenon which has found its way into various everyday applications and is used e.g. for monitoring technologies or search engines. However, the intelligent robot with a conscious ego still is a vague future scenario, but we have already reached a certain degree of automation which might revolutionize significantly not only human self-conception, but also society. To what extent will be questioned the autonomy of humans, if such applications begin to become established in sensitive everyday areas such as care or transportation? Besides ethical questions, this development brings up difficult legal issues, mainly with regard to security, liability and data privacy. How can the technical systems and the data stored in these systems be legally protected against attacks by third parties and misuse? Who shall be liable for damages resulting from malfunctions?

The subject gains particular relevance against the background of large projects which currently have been launched in the EU (»Human Brain Project«) and in the US (»Brain Initiative«) within the framework of which the functional principles of the brain shall be unraveled by means of supercomputers, i.a. with the aim of exploring new areas of application in medicine and robotics having a considerable visionary potential. In view of the highly dynamic and diversified research landscape, of the diversified and still rather diffuse potentials of application and of the fact that – to a large extent – the emerging dynamics regarding the dissolution of boundaries is taking place rather slowly, the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag (TAB) has been commissioned by the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment to carry out a project dealing with the topic of »Human-machine interaction: Between artificial intelligence and human enhancement«.

Some aspects of this subject already have been dealt with by the TAB, e.g. in the reports on »Brain research« (TAB working report no. 117), on »Technologies in the context of disability compensation at the workplace« (TAB working report no. 129), on »Pharmacological interventions to improve performance as a social challenge« (TAB working report no. 143) and on »Converging technologies« (background paper no. 16). Against the background of the dynamics of neuroscientific research, it has been pointed out here that i.a. there is need for further clarification and differentiation in the field of human enhancement technologies.

Objectives and approach

First, the TA project shall provide a systematic overview of relevant scientific-technological developments contributing to the phenomenon of the dissolution of boundaries between humans and machines. This particularly includes the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), brain research and neuroelectric interfaces. Secondly, based on an assessment of already identifiable trends, the superordinate societal drivers / visions and the dimensions of possible consequences shall be analyzed. The latter are considered to be both of an ethical (equitable distribution, impact on social interactions, moral status of machines, challenges due to the extension of human sensory perception and to the technicality of the human body etc.) and of a legal nature (liability, security, data privacy). The central objective of the project is to clarify the question of the extent to which needs for political action and – if necessary – regulatory options can be derived from the advancing dynamics regarding the dissolution of boundaries between humans and machines. The project shall be carried out in two steps:

  • During the first exploratory phase, the goal is to develop – by means of short expert analyses – a well-founded knowledge base with regard to already established and emerging trends of the dissolution of boundaries between humans and machines and to identify politically relevant developments in science and society. In this context, it will also be required to evaluate already existing or still running TA projects regarding this subject. On this basis, particularly relevant horizontal and in-depth issues shall be identified and the further working schedule shall be specified.
  • In the further course of the project, particularly relevant fields of application as well as their societal framework conditions and impacts shall be analyzed in detail. For this purpose, specific lines of development with regard to the advancing dissolution of boundaries between humans and machines shall be examined by the VDI/VDE-IT in a so-called horizon scanning. Finally, the aim is to examine systematically the socially relevant opportunities and risks, associated ethical-philosophical issues as well as legal framework conditions in order to be able to identify needs for regulation and to derive policy options taking this as a basis.