“Cyber-Humans: Our Future with Machines” – An Interview with Prof. Woodrow Barfield

Interviewee: Prof. Dr. Woodrow Barfield, the author of Cyber-Humans: Our Future with Machines, Springer Press; former professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle  

Interviewer: Dr. Yueh-Hsuan Weng, the Co-founder of Peking University’s ROBOLAW.ASIA Initiative and Fellow at Tech and Law Center 

Date: March. 15. 2016

Q1. Can you tell us a little about your background?

I completed my doctorate in engineering in 1986 at Purdue University in the U.S., and while a graduate student I took courses in automation, AI, and industrial robotics. I spent the majority of my faculty career designing virtual reality and wearable computer technology, and was one of the first senior editors of the MIT journal- Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments. At some point in my academic career, I became interested in the intersection of law and technology so I received a JD and an LLM in intellectual property law, and was an External Fellow with Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. The law and technology of AI, robotics, and cyborgs is my current interest.

Q2. What is a cyborg, the subject of your book?

That’s an interesting question for several reasons- and there is disagreement as to what the definition should be. Generally, I think we are transitioning from human as user of technology, to the human becoming the technology- of course this transition raises many ethical issues and stresses the law in many ways. At any rate, the definition of a cyborg used by many is a person whose physiological and mental functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device. Similarly, Joel Garreau, author of Radical Evolution, states that a cyborg consists of a human body that has been “altered and augmented” with machine technology. But given that prosthetics and other cyborg technologies are becoming part of the human body and can be modeled with control theory, I extend the definition of a cyborg to include the concept of:(1) closed-loop feedback,and(2) that the technology being integrated into the human body has computational ability. Further, I think that in the twenty-first century the use of devices worn on the body or implanted within the body, will provide people functionality which will enhance or go beyond current human abilities. I’m somewhat of a “Kurzweilian,” thus I think that under the law of accelerating returns, “cyborg” technology will continue to improve exponentially and eventually be implanted into the human brain allowing us to connect to the internet and control technology by thought alone. Here I should point out the groundbreaking work of Miguel Nichoelis at Duke University on brain-computer interfaces, Theodore Berger on the design of an artificial hippocampus at the University of Southern California, Steve Mann’s work at the University of Toronto, and Kevin Warwick’s early proof-of-concept study to implant a sensor into his body.

Q3. By your definition ofa cyborg, do you think that Mr. Alex Murphy (ROBOCOP), Mr. Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius (Blade Runner) and Prof. Kevin Warwick are Cyborgs?

Under the standard definition of a what a cyborg is (someone with technology integrated into their body), all three would be considered cyborgs. But I suggested that there are two features that constitute a cyborg in my answer above and clearly ROBOCOP meets the criteria, but let’s quickly look at Pistorius and Warwick. Pistorius is equipped with a Cheetah Flex Foot prosthetic, a device which works by storing and releasing energy within a carbon fiber sprinting foot. My understanding is that the technology is passive in that it has no motors, sensors or microprocessors; thus Pistorius is not equipped with technology that provides him computational abilities, but his technology does help restore and perhaps increase his motor functionality. So in my view he is on the way to becoming a cyborg, that is, once his technology computes and can be modeled with control theory- he’s there. Now for Warwick, he equipped himself with an RFID device which was used to control doors, lights, heaters, and other computer-controlled devices based on his proximity to them. Again the RFID implant didn’t compute, it just passively sent out a signal, so at the time, Warwick also fell short of my definition. However, technology marches on, and people now have microprocessors embedded in technology they wear on their body or have implanted within their body, thus providing the person technology with computational abilities that is part of closed-loop feedback system.

Q4. Can you briefly describe the content of your book- Cyber Humans: Our Future with Machines?

I can describe my book in one short sentence- Kurzweil meets the law. But perhaps the best way to describe the book is to very briefly discuss the content of a few chapters. The Law of Artificially Intelligent Brains discusses how the law will apply to technology that is just beginning to be implanted in the brain, such as neuroprosthesis and software. For example, given “cyborg technologies” will thoughts produced and stored on a neuroprosthesis (memories?) be copyrightable and also subject to free speech protection? The chapter on Modifying, Enhancing, and Hacking the Body, presents the efforts of some people to self-modify their body with technology and includes a discussion of some legal issues that are implicated with self-enhancements. To briefly describe one more chapter, The Law of Looks and Artificial Bodies, here I discuss the law which apples to the appearance of robot(and particularly android) and cyborg bodies, including issues of trademark, copyright, and patent. I also discuss constitutional rights and employment discrimination law for robots and cyborgs, and I briefly discuss legal issues associated with uploading a human mind to an android body (for example, would copyright’s first sale doctrine apply to a mind upload, what derivative rights are implicated under copyright law?).

Q5. How do you view a law of cyborgs?

I’m actually working on a book now on just that topic so I think a lot about how law relates to technological enhancements for the body and mind. Generally, the law treats technology and the human body differently, so even though technology may be integrated into the body, and psychologically be perceived by the “cyborg” as part of their body, rights associated with the body are different from rights associated with technology. But as the boundary between human and machine begins to blur, is this distinction still relevant? As we become more cyborg-like, legal institutions will need to modify and enact new law to address human-machine combinations. At any rate, a law of cyborgs should not be compartmentalized, but broad as issues in tort, constitutional law, criminal law, etc., will be implicated.

Q6. Can you give us a sample of some cases that involve cyborgs?

There are several, for example, products liability cases dealing with defective prosthesis is a prime example. But let me quickly review two cases I find relevant and fascinating. The case of Sell v. United States was inter alia, about the concept of cognitive liberty. In an age where we are moving in the direction of technology implanted in the brain and with the possibility that the technology could be accessible by third parties, the Sell case is particularly interesting. In order to make Sell competent to stand trial, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled that Sell could be injected with psychotropic drugs in order to make him “mentally competent.” Sell insisted on his right to refuse this mind-altering medication, and the Supreme Court reviewed the case.Sell argued that by drugging him against his will, the government would violate his right to security and autonomy within his own body and also impact “rights of the mind”. As we move closer to neuroprosthesis, this case raises the very important issue of cognitive liberty—what rights a person has to resist forced manipulation of his or her thinking. The second cyborg/law example involved the use of a prosthesis in an assault charge. In State of Arizonav. Schaffer, a grand jury indicted the defendant on two counts of aggravated assault. The first count charged that the defendant used a prosthetic arm as a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument, intentionally, knowingly or recklessly, causing a physical injury to the victim. The defendant argued that his prosthetic arm could not be a “dangerous instrument” or “deadly weapon” because it was part of his body.But the State contended that a prosthetic arm is not a “body part” because the arm “is not an amalgamation of flesh, blood, bone and muscle, but is, instead, a mechanical device that, although attached to the body, may qualify as a “dangerous instrument” under the aggravated assault statute.”So, in this case, the prosthesis was not viewed by the court as part of the defendant’s body, but with future advances in “cyborg technologies” that are more fully integrated within the body and controlled by the person’s mind, it will be difficult to treat the technology and person’s body differently.

Q7. How does a law of cyborgs relate to a law of robotics?

If you think as I do, we humans are becoming more-and-more integrated with technology (“we” are becoming like them), and at the same time robots are getting smarter using AI techniques such as deep learning, and improved algorithms for better computer vision, etc. (“they” are becoming like us). Given this observation, I think there are many similarities between humans and robots, and the gap will get smaller in the next few decades. So, will we need separate laws for humans/cyborgs/robots, perhaps not if we merge. That is, we become like “them,” and “they” become like us.

Q8. Mr. Christian Kandlbauer was the world’s first person who used a mind-controlled robotics arm to drive a car. In 2006, he lost both of his arms due to an accident, later he received surgeries to become a “Cyborg”, he can control his left arm by his mind, but his right arm is a conventional prosthesis. In October 2010, he drove his car into a tree on his way to work, and died from this accident. From this lesson, how can law and regulation prevent similar cases to happen?

So, my reading of the accident is that we don’t know if the prosthesis or artificial hand contributed to the accident. I think we can equip prosthesis with the equivalent of a “black box” that will record its functioning, and the recovery of its data could be used to reconstruct the cause of the accident. Of course finding fault from a manufacturer, vendor, programmer, and owner, will be an issue especially if the prosthesis malfunctioned. However, generally, the law and regulations should make sure the technology is safe before it is widely adopted. I think that’s the case with any technology. Further, the legal institutions and industries creating cyborg technology need to work together to come to an agreement on what regulations should be enacted and how technology should be designed and used.

Q9. In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge in enhancing the social acceptance for Cyborg technology?

I think much work remains to be done in this area. My daughter did a study on the topic and she found that males and females differed significantly in how they perceived cyborg technology integrated into their body. There are also cultural differences (Japan and S. Korea have a more positive view of robots than Western Nations), and I note with interest that most female androids I have seen appear as young and attractive. I can’t help but wonder what discrimination law will look like in the future. But generally, medical necessity has spurred the need for “cyborg technology,” such as a heart pacer, artificial hippocampus, brain-computer interfaces, retinal prosthesis, cochlear implant, and so on, and medical necessity promotes the use of new technology and its acceptance. Further, I think the younger generation having been raised with digital technology and with images of robots and cyborgs through popular media are very open to becoming technologically enhanced. Over time, those who remain purely biological will be at a disadvantage compared to those with superior capabilities provided by technology. First, the rich will have the technology, but as the price-performance continues to decrease as seen with other information technologies, the equipment will get cheaper and accessible for the general population.

Q10. The final question is about the boundary between human and cyborg. Please take a look of the Cyborg “Hakaider”which is a mix of human brain and metal body, it could be a challenge to define its status from a legal perspective. My friend’s friend in Hong Kong has an idea to create a mechanism to upload people’s consciousness into machines. In this case, if someone’s consciousness can be copied and installed into a Cyborg, can we say “he” as a human being or that “it” as an intelligent machine? What’s kind of legal protection will be needed?

I think the question of defining the status of Hakaider versus establishing rights for Hakaider are related but different questions, and both are very challenging. In addition, uploading someone’s consciousness to a machine is a third issue within the question. Of course we are not near the point where we could place a human brain into a machine or upload a person’s consciousness to a machine- perhaps we will never be able to do either. With that caveat, here are a few insights. Martine Rothblatt’s recent bookVirtually Humans: The Promise and Perils of Digital Immortality, is on the topic of mind uploads, she points out that every day, social media is automatically uploading our thoughts, memories, preferences, beliefs, and history to a virtual existence, essentially creating a “mindfile” of ourselves. Further, thousands of software engineers across the globe are working on “mindware” to create from these mindfile personalities a humanlike consciousness in computer software, so this is a serious effort. Is Hakaider human, perhaps so, as the brain controls a person’s thoughts, memories, language, and emotions, that is, what basically makes us human, but I understand that some people would disagree with this assessment. In terms of legal protection, if Hakaider is considered human he/she should receive the rights humans receive. But what if Hakaider’s mechanical body was far superior to a human body? Then we biological humans would need to make sure our rights were protected from technologically enhanced and superior cyborgs. I believe such issues will work their way through our court systems and be debated in the next few decades.