The goal of engineers is to improve the world around them. Problems arise, however, when the ethics of their work are debated. While these individuals may have certain goals for their products, unintended use can pose harm to society as a whole. In the past decade, the field of prosthetics has rapidly developed into a mass market—providing areas of continued research and investment. Modern-day prosthetics extend far beyond arms and legs. Some of the most recent developments include neuroprosthetics, or devices that allow an individual to control their prosthetic limb by thought (Glannon, 2016).
The dexterity and functionality provided by these devices have the potential to positively influence the quality of life for amputees all over the world. Because biomedical engineers are working to serve the patients’ best interest, the ethical implications of these devices must also be considered during the design process.
While modern-day prosthetic replacements rarely work as well as their biological counterparts, this will not be the case in the near future (Glannon, 2016).
According to Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, the growth of technologies increases exponentially, therefore, a similar trend can be expected from the field of prosthetics (Niman, 2013). While these developments would lead to a decreased number of “disabled” individuals, how would they affect societal views of biological augmentation? Could nondisabled individuals elect to have a limb replaced with a bionic counterpart? While this may seem like a far-off scenario, improving one’s physical appearance via surgical procedures is not a novel concept. Cosmetic surgery has actually been fulfilled similar desires since the 1980s.
Putting these prosthetic devices on the market is therefore a dangerous ethical concern to the engineers who design them. The development of rules and regulations associated with a technological innovation should be considered equally as important as the device itself (Desmond & MacLachan, 2002).
The circumstances of Oscar Pistorius give us a potential glimpse into a future where prosthetic limbs could generate physical advantages in sports performance. Oscar, a sprinter with a double below-the-knee amputation, competes in both non-disabled and amputee athletic events with the help of his carbon fiber prosthetic blades. When he first began participating in these games, debates arose regarding if his prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage. Adjusting the human body by means of mechanics alters the potential of our bodies thus obscuring physical achievements. In Oscar’s case, this debate led to an amendment of IAAF rules banning the use of ‘any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device’ (Turbow, 2017). His carbon fiber blades did not qualify under this statement and he therefore went on to become the first amputee sprinter to compete in the Olympic Games.
In addition to designing products, engineers must consider the issues that may arise and the societal complications their product could initiate. Society’s response, while unpredictable, should be anticipated as accurately as possible. In my opinion, the implantation of prosthetics in non-disabled individuals would be harmful to the individual and the future of human nature (Meyer, 2017). In the midst of technological advancements, we cannot lose sight of the morals and values that make us human. Ethical analysis within the field of engineering is a necessary procedure as it requires anticipation of non-desired uses and allows preventative action to be taken against them.