Thoughts from the CDC's Future of Health Technology Symposium

Feb 26, 2007, 8:49 AM, Posted by

Last Thursday’s meeting at the CDC was as diverse as it was brief. Its coverage ranged from large(robots) and small (wearable monitors) devices currently in the field to leading edge research that may someday have impact. It would be impossible for a short blog entry to do it justice. Instead, I want to focus on one presenter who to me, at first, seemed almost comical, but left me with thoughts that I continue to reflect upon.

Kevin Warwick is Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, England. In 1998 he had an RFID chip implanted in his forearm. This experiment allowed a computer to monitor him as he moved around and allowed him to operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger. More recently (2002) Dr. Warwick had a microelectrode array fired into the median nerve fibers below the elbow joint and later a similar operation was performed on his wife, potentially making them the first couple to “electronically” demonstrably communicate telepathically. Part of his presentation showed clips of two people. One had Parkinson’s and his tremors were removed as a result of a deep brain probe. The other had a sophisticated artificial arm that served as a replacement to one that was lost to cancer.

There was certainly something macabre about what Dr. Warwick has done to himself and his wife, and indeed there has been criticism about his methods and the real value of these experiments.  For me, however, these experiments highlight a collection of ethical questions that need to be addressed as newer technologies enable human changes that were not possible in the past. We are quite comfortable with a drug that lowers cholesterol and lets one live longer and healthier. I (and I’d say most people) are sympathetic and accepting of an implant that would allow a paralyzed person to walk or an artificial limb to replace one lost to disease. If it would be OK to replace an arm lost to an injury with a new computerized arm that is stronger and easier to control than the original, would it then be OK to remove my right arm and replace it with a new one so that I could become the best pitcher in the major leagues? How about if it would just help me with my golf game?

How will these decisions be made in the future? Who will make them? Who will fund the new technologies?  As a society, are we willing to support going as far as technology will take us?

These are questions we are facing right now. Last week it was announced that a baby who was born at 21 weeks, six days of gestation is leaving the hospital after spending four months in a neonatal intensive care unit. The American Association of Pediatrics states that babies born at this gestational age and weight weight are not considered viable.  While the physician in this case tried hard to position this birth as an unique situation, it is unlikely to remain so for long. At the other end of life, my mother and mother-in-law are regularly scheduled for tests (paid for by Medicare) where the results are, or should be, irrelevant – these women are probably not healthy enough to tolerate any treatment for a condition the tests would reveal.

Technology will continue to advance regardless of how prepared we are to respond to the social, ethical, economic and human consequences. It is up to all of us to formulate, address and most of all answer the questions this advancing technology raises, in parallel with the evolving science.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.