The cybernetic organisms we know from science fiction have actually been around for the longest time: implants give people back their hearing, workers can do their crafts again with neuronally controlled artificial hands, and athletes with prosthetics achieve top performances, in some cases even surpassing those of physically intact people. On the other hand, up to now there has always been an essential difference from the visions of the future we know from films and literature. Hitherto, people have been equipped with technological aids in order to give them medical support in the event of injury or illness.
In science fiction, however, therapy is often not the declared aim. In science fiction, the focus is on enhancing the human being per se. In this context the question as to the extent to which we can optimise human beings by technological means has come to the fore, pushing purely medical motives into the background. This development, however, raises many new questions: what does this mean for our society and to what extent do we want to interfere with human nature? Markus Schmidt of the research company Biofaction is investigating these ethical aspects in the Futurebody project which is being funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF.
“Before I studied biology, I attended a technical college with a focus on biomedical technology,” says Schmidt and notes that he was taken aback by the approach he encountered in biology classes: “As a student I was frustrated about everything being descriptive, or analytical, at best. Nature is seen as a given, there is no room provided for being creative as there is in engineering.” Schmidt speaks of “mental blocks” in biology. Consequently, he says, the search for the creative aspect in biology took him to synthetic biology, where the designing of nature is part of the remit. “It is significant that the people setting the tone there have an interdisciplinary background: some are civil engineers who more or less accidentally ended up in biology. They don’t have this ingrained conviction, this acquired credo that you shouldn’t mess around with nature,” says Schmidt.
The researcher has been working in the field for 15 years and has also been involved with biohackers – people who use biotechnology on their own account outside of academic and industrial research, for example to produce medicines or to use the Crispr-Cas9 gene scissors on themselves. “In interviews with hackers from Europe and the USA, I saw that there are also overlaps with neurotechnology,” Markus Schmidt reports. In some cases it’s the same individuals, he says. This is how the motivation for the project came about.
Neurotechnologies in films
Schmidt is particularly interested in the creative societal debate on neurotechnologies and the ethical questions that are raised in that context. As with synthetic biology, it is mainly science fiction films that take up the subject. Hollywood blockbusters work within limitations, however, because they are about box office. “Eighty per cent of Hollywood films have a happy ending because they would generate less money otherwise,” Schmidt notes. In order to facilitate a broader discussion, his team organised the 2019 BIO-FICTION film festival for independent films about neurotechnologies. “Low budget indie films don’t have the primary goal of making a lot of money which is why they can focus on the artistic element,” Schmidt says. Twenty-six of the films submitted were selected as semi-finalists for a screening at the festival in Vienna and were subjected to an analysis by Schmidt’s team.
“One of the films was called Reboot,” Schmidt recalls. It was made by a Romanian filmmaker who did everything himself: script, direction, camera, lead actor. “It’s about a man with depressive thoughts who wants to start a new life and ‘reboot’ himself for neurotechnical brain stimulation.” Schmidt specifically points out the present-day portrayal of the brain as a thinking machine that can be rebooted like a computer. “In the past, people compared the brain to clockwork because that was the most complex thing known. Today it’s the computer.” One of the films was a documentary in which severely paralysed musicians were enabled to make music in a quartet using EEG. The film was made by an artist who works with algorithmic composition.
Film festival interrupted by the pandemic
Awards were given to the best fiction films and the best documentaries. Originally, the festival was supposed to go on tour in 2020/21 with part of the programme and a specially designed film world café for structured discussion rounds, but the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. The festival organisers were able to do some of the individual stops of the tour, such as Australia, and Helsinki was conducted online, but the majority of events could not yet take place. The project was therefore extended and the missed stops are to be made up for in 2021/22.
In addition to arthouse movies, Schmidt also explored other art forms to see how neurotechnologies are seen outside universities and hospitals. “You could consider that artists are fulfilling the role of cultural psychologists. They pick up on moods and trends early on,” says Schmidt. “We tried to get an overview of neurotechnology-inspired art.” In addition, he says, they want to work closely with the artists to learn more about the background of their works.
The issue of optimised humans
The question of how to deal with neurotechnologies is more pressing today than ever before. Schmidt mentions a project partner who was deaf and now can hear again with the help of a cochlear implant, which transmits impulses from an electronic microphone directly to the auditory nerve: “We were in a restaurant with loud background noise and I had difficulty hearing him. I thought it must be worse for him, but he heard me perfectly. His hearing aid has a setting specifically for noisy environments. Normally people with this implant have 80 to 90 per cent hearing, but in this case he hears much better than a healthy person without the device.” In technological terms, he adds, there is nothing to stop the frequency range from being extended so that such a person could also hear bat cries, for example. According to Schmidt, this also raises the question of how people with disabilities are perceived and how we will react to people without implants in the future. “What we call normal today could be considered backward in a few decades because people with enhancements have more capabilities,” Schmidt points out.
In methodological terms, Schmidt’s work in the Futurebody project ties in with technology impact assessment, but widens the scope by engaging with hackers, artists, science fiction authors and filmmakers. He wants to support the societal debate on the new possibilities of technologies by supplying facts, but also by bringing in fictional scenarios to spark off the imagination.
“The first cars looked like horse carriages without horses. In the 1980s and 90s, people thought the internet was like television, only better. Can we even imagine today how neurotechnology will change people in the future?” Schmidt asks. The researcher is convinced that art could find answers to this question. Partner institutes from Karlsruhe, Calgary and Freiburg are involved in the international basic research project, which is part of the European Commission’s Era-Net Neuron programme which has a specialist focus on neurology.
Markus Schmidt is a biotechnologist and the director and founder of the research and science communication company Biofaction. After a technical education in communications engineering and biomedical engineering, he studied biology. He is interested in synthetic biology, neurotechnology and related scientific fields, with a focus on the social implications. The project “Participatory Reflection and Neurotechnology – Art, Hacking and Storytelling” (2018–2022) is supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF with EUR 200,000.
Teunisse W., Youssef S., Schmidt M.: Human enhancement through the lens of experimental and speculative neurotechnologies, in: Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies 2019