The Ethics of Experimentation: Ethical Cybernetic Enhancements

Alex Pearlman
16 min readJun 19, 2017


By Alex Pearlman

King’s College London, 2017


Every technological and medical leap in the history of human improvement, from vaccines to breast augmentation, has proven controversial within the debate between therapy and enhancement. For hundreds of years, these two concepts have been set against each other by cultural critics and philosophers on either side.

The therapy-enhancement distinction does play a morally relevant role in our society, especially when it comes to technology. A demarcation exists between what is a necessary medical intervention that is an ethically permissible application of a technology, and what is a novel, unnecessary, and ethically impermissible application.

However, this invisible line only exists because we say it does.

Bioethicists, philosophers, doctors and sociologists all argue about the line. But the line is fading, and quickly. In this paper, I will show how cybernetic enhancements are an example of a technology that makes the line between therapy and enhancement morally irrelevant.

Implanted cybernetic enhancements and the experimenting technologists who have them are not only confronting the question of whether all enhancements are inherently ethically wrong, they are also challenging the line between therapy and enhancement itself.

Philosophers and bioethicists must escape “baseless speculation” about how enhancements will prove detrimental to humanity, and instead admit that enhancements have long been a part of human existence that have not fundamentally altered what critics consider inviolable aspects of our nature. (Jones, 2006 and DeGrazia, 2005)

Cybernetic experiments are what I call a “soft enhancement,” not unlike cosmetic surgery, and as such they exist in an area that doesn’t fall into the conventional trap of being unethical based on theoretical, repetitious ideas (such as choosing to implant embryos based on hair color, for example.)

Cybernetic enhancements, and cyborgs themselves, are examples of the area between what is considered ethically permissible, and the growing subculture around enhancing technologies.

Implanted LED lights in members of biohacking collective Grindhouse Wetware (via Grindhouse Wetware)

SO Hansson, in his 2005 paper, predicted the rise of subcultures around human enhancement. But the rise of a subculture around an idea of human identity is a morally neutral one until that subculture’s goals, actions and intentions are taken into account. (Hansson, 2005)

In this paper, I will show that grinders, a subculture of do-it-yourself (DIY) biohacking enthusiasts who implant electronics into themselves, are not an inherently dangerous or morally untenable group of cyborgs.

I will argue that members of the grinder subculture who experiment on themselves with cybernetic augmentations with the goal of becoming cyborgs are performing ethically permissible, non-therapeutic enhancements that should be tolerated and even embraced by medical and regulatory institutions.

For this paper, I will not engage with arguments about pressures to become a cyborg for social or professional reasons, nor will I consider concerns relating to government or corporate control over implanted devices. Although these are important questions, they are not relevant to this discussion about the ethics of applications of existing technology, because they refer to a hypothetical future where cybernetic enhancements are accepted by mainstream society, and may have become ubiquitous, or even required.

What is a cyborg?

Before we can debate cyborg ethics, we must identify what a cyborg, or a person with cybernetic enhancements, is and what their enhancements are.

Reporter, ethicist and cyborg Enno Park offers this excellent definition: “A cyborg is a human being with an electronic device implanted in or permanently attached to their body for the purpose of enhancing their individual senses or abilities beyond the occasional use of tools.” (2014)

Park’s succinct definition gives necessary clarity to a somewhat cloudy topic, and it is preferable above other definitions because because he notes four important attributes of cybernetic augmentation and experimentation.

First, the enhancement in question is a device (it is electronic); second, it is implanted (there is a procedure to get it inside one’s body); third, its purpose is enhancing senses internally (it is not for art or personal expression, differentiating it from piercings, tattoos, performance or body modification); and lastly, it is based on individual preference (it is for one person, and customized for that person, and no one is forcing that person to be experimented on).

For the purposes of this paper, we will only consider enhancements that are possible and exist in the real world, and which are utilized by cyborgs as defined above.

DG Jones considers this kind of “real” enhancement a “Category 2” enhancement, a middle-ground. These enhancements, which fall on a scale between medical necessity (such as an artificial heart, Category 1) and futurist hypothetical (such as gene editing, Category 3), “may have nothing to do with health. It may refer to an extension of abilities. In this case, enhancement would refer to those with super-abilities, in contrast with individuals with the normal range of abilities.” (2006)

For our purposes, the specific enhancements I will generally be referring to are experimental versions of implanted radio frequency identification (RFID) or near-field communication (NFC) chips, rare earth neodymium magnets, copper coils, LED lights, and other, similar small electronics.

Like any other electronics, these implanted devices are exchangeable, upgradable, removeable, and relatively inexpensive.

The uselessness of the therapy/enhancement debate

The therapy/enhancement debate has been a prominent one within bioethics, medical law, and philosophy for decades. However, much of the recent literature regarding the creeping idea of human enhancement through biotechnology has been devoted to discussion of mostly hypothetical gene therapies and assisted reproduction technologies.

Critics of enhancement often invoke claims of eugenics and fears that enhancements will create a slippery slope to the “unnatural” (Fukuyama, 2002 and Kass et al, 2003). Defenders often go so far as to actually advocate in favor of a kind of eugenics through enhancements, such as Selgelid’s “neugenics” (2013) and Fenton’s “liberal eugenics.” (2006).

Jones writes of the debate between the two sides, “enhancement is often seen in grandiose terms in which human beings are radically transformed… a conflation of such visions with present reality, grandiose visions of human self-modification and genetic perfectibility, and eugenic aspirations.” (2006)

Indeed, the framing of the debate has long-muddled an already murky dispute based in hypotheticals and insistence on drawing a line between preserving some unidentifiable concept of the natural human state, while ignoring a long-established human desire for self-improvement, whether that be cosmetic or mechanical. (DeGrazia, 2005)

Ultimately, the matter at hand is whether there is a definitive line between what is a therapeutic treatment and therefore acceptable, and what is a medically unnecessary enhancement and therefore ethically dubious.

It is clear that these two concepts are distinct from each other, and David DeGrazia frames the debate in his paper, “Enhancement Technologies and Human Identity,” by setting “treatment” and “enhancement” against each other as “meaningful, contrasting terms.”

So it seems that while yes, there is a clear demarcation between the two concepts, it is not a moral one, but a semantic one based on outmoded definitions.

Some of the repeated ethical concerns about the concept of human enhancements include: safety, body autonomy, age limits, normalization or promoting a reductionist agenda, violations against nature or core human characteristics, hijacking of technology by a higher authority for nefarious means (such as a government), access and distributive justice, and social responsibility within one’s culture. (Harris, 2007; DeGrazia, 2005; Kass et al, 2003; Park, 2014; and Midgley, 2000)

But if none of these concerns prove realistic in the face of an actual, existing, enhancing technology, is the enhancement prima facie unethical? Can enhancements then be defined along moral terms at all?

The therapy/enhancement divide is so arbitrary that it can no longer reasonably exist. As an example, one might point to the fact that a cochlear implant, a commonly suggested therapy for deaf children, could certainly be used by a hearing person to be able to program what and how they hear.

This is an enhancement, but it would be difficult to tell that hearing person that they cannot access a kind of technology simply because they don’t need it for a medical purpose. (Park, 2014) If colored contacts on my eyes can change the very way in which I see the world, it should only stand to reason that I be able to ethically use available technology to augment my other senses.

The utility of the distinction between therapy and enhancement ultimately collapses, writes John Harris (2007), because “it does not draw either a morally significant or explanatorily significant distinction and so fails utterly to be useful.”

Clearly, it is not enhancement technology itself that is unethical, it is perhaps the intent of the use of the technology, and that any enhancement technology should be considered on its own merits.

The role of medical ethics and the law

A medically unnecessary cochlear implant, like all other cybernetic enhancements, does have one problematic quality: in order to operate in conjunction with a healthy human body, it must be implanted by someone with an understanding of both human biological and technological function.

The relevant concerns about enhancement experimentation are legal and safety hurdles.

Certainly, when it comes to any form of intervention with the human body, for reasons of therapy or enhancement, safety regulations are crucial considerations. (Harris, 2007)

In medical law, the Helsinki Declaration has not been officially adopted in the UK, but many medical practitioners feel they are governed by its ethical principles regarding experimentation on human subjects. (Herring, 2017). A simple read makes it obvious that cyborgs who are experimenting on themselves and their friends, while not medical professionals, are certainly in violation of some of the general principles of the Declaration.

In the interest of helping cyborgs experiment in safe and ethical ways, doctors who might be interested in medical research around cybernetic implants should work alongside cyborgs to make sure they are using accepted standards and practices, even if the best they can do without running afoul of the law is to offer advice.

After all, the cyborgs are going to experiment on themselves regardless of medical supervision. And although it is clear that doctors and medical staff may be faced with a difficult choice knowing that these experiments can go awry, the medical community should consider cybernetic augmentation a worthy place to assist in setting safety standards for the future.

There is precedent for this in the area of cosmetic and plastic surgery, which now abides by strict ethical guidelines (American Society of Plastic Surgeons), despite the fact that much of the plastic surgery undertaken by doctors can be considered a medically unnecessary enhancement. (Mousavi, 2010)

When it comes to regulatory structures that govern experiments outside of medicine, we can also look to the two closest cousins of DIY enhancements, extreme body modification and legal issues relating to personal electronics and medical devices.

Depending on jurisdiction, it is not clear that self-modification, or even any kind of extreme body modification is even legal. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where cyborg collective Grindhouse Wetware partners with local tattoo shops and piercing parlors, subdermal implants are legal. In Boston, Mass. a piercing artist cannot legally offer an experimental procedure such as a magnet implant, however, ear stretching is legal. (Mass. HHS)

In London and many other parts of the UK, extreme body modification exists in a kind of legal limbo. (Pegg, 2017). It’s likely that if a piercer who has experience with subdermal implants wanted to offer magnet or chip implants to customers, they may be able to without legal interference.

However, should the law draw a line between art (a subdermal piece of silicone shaped like a star, for example) and utility (a magnet that can store data), there would be an obvious difference in how cybernetic augmentation is regulated. And in the UK, “where a wound or bodily harm is inflicted on another person, there are only certain circumstances in which consent will render the injury lawful.” (Pegg, 2017)

In a compelling report from Brookings in 2014, experts engaged with some of the legal issues facing the impending “cyborgization” of our society. Authors mainly focused on wearable technology, mobile phones, and cyborgs who have outfitted unique medical devices to assist assorted disabilities and disorders, as well as the functionality of medical devices already in widespread use. However, the paper takes important steps forward to suggest a new legal process for cyborgs and cybernetic enhancements of multiple flavors.

Despite the fact that the authors only briefly consider “people who engage in cyborgism that is seemingly simply recreational in nature,” they make an excellent point — the law must soon catch up with technology that already exists.

They write that “conceptualizing our changing relationship to technology in terms of our cyborgization may facilitate the development of law and policy,” an urgent necessity. (Wittes and Chong, 2014)

Luckily, there is an answer to this challenge: Who better to investigate how medical standards, laws and policies should accommodate cyborgs than the cyborgs themselves?

Grinder culture and ethical cyborgization

When I first heard of experimental magnet implants, it was from journalist Dan Berg, who had written a blog post about how his magnet interacted with the world in unexpected ways, such as at a New York City intersection with a subway station below. (Berg, 2012)

I was fascinated, but I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be able to feel electromagnetic energy.

So I got my own silicone-covered neodymium magnet implanted, in the name of science and journalism. A colleague and I traveled to Pittsburgh to meet Tim Cannon and the rest of his DIY cyborg collective at Grindhouse Wetware.

The x-ray of my left hand, before the magnet was removed.

Cannon is one of a handful of famous cyborgs who have become well-known through intense media scrutiny for their antics, which can mostly be considered performance art. Others include Neil Harbisson, Rich Lee, Stelarc, Rob Spence, Kevin Warwick, and Moon Ribas. (Wainwright, 2015)

However, Cannon is also part of another group, grinders, who are loosely aligned around the anarchistic principles of open-source technology, creating and sharing implanted cybernetic enhancements for the general population. Notable grinders include Amal Graafstra from the collective Dangerous Things, punk philosopher Lepht Anonym, and Gabriel Licina from the collective Science for the Masses.

The grinder motivation for self-experimentation becomes very clear when Cannon explains it:

“Little experiments elevate you, so that you can see what’s next, right? You can’t predict how magnets are going to feel, and what it’s going to make you aware of without having one… I think a lot of people neglect [to understand] that a ton of things you find out through experimentation are the unexpected results…[Experimenting] gives you a vantage point.” (Pearlman, 2017)

Cannon defines his methods as being a “little more DIY” than other scientists, but he is an engineer by trade, and he believes that in the quest to “overcome biological limitations,” grinders shouldn’t wait for technology to evolve into the mainstream organically. He takes science seriously, but doesn’t have a problem bending experimental norms to his whims.

“[Grinders] are saying, ‘hey I want this, does it exist? No? Guess I gotta make it then, and if I gotta make it with a little glue and panache, then maybe that’s what I’ll do.” (Pearlman, 2017)

Slate magazine defines grinders as “people who would rather become cyborgs right now than pontificate about the hypothetical far-off future.” (Oremus, 2013)

Meanwhile, an article in The Verge described grinders as “homebrew biohackers obsessed with the idea of human enhancement — who are looking for new ways to put machines into their bodies.” (Popper, 2012)

Estimates of the number of grinders with cybernetic implants varies, but it’s certainly in the thousands, including a number of journalists who have written about their experiences, myself included. (Haworth, FAQ; Norton, 2006; Berg, 2012; Pearlman, 2016)

The grinder experiments range from the somewhat terrifying (such as the small computer Cannon implanted into his forearm) to the seemingly simplistic (an RFID chip, identical to the ones pets are now required to have). But the key to the ethics of grinder experiments isn’t that they are not for personal gain or performance. They are for utility.

Indeed, in interviews, Cannon often makes a point about humans possessing qualities that served us well as hunter-gatherers, while missing key evolutionary traits that would be helpful in light of coming changes to our bodies and environments, whether those are biological or environmental. (Pearlman, 2017)

Grinders see themselves and their work the same way early programmers and computer hackers saw their creations “as a tool for personal liberation” and an exercise in autonomy. (Mizrach, 2008)

When compared to the early basement-based work of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, it is not difficult to see the similarities.

There are two main points that show clearly how grinders and their enhancement experiments are acting ethically.

First, intent matters. If the intention behind experimentation with cybernetic enhancements is to be community oriented, and to provide access and information about technology that supplies a safe, useful product to the end user, how can the ethics of cybernetic enhancement experimentation be be impermissible?

Second, experimentation and sharing results openly is the cornerstone of scientific inquiry and human progress. Grinders are performing an important service by bringing experimental science from the ivory towers of academia to the basement, and to the wider internet. They are creating a system for frank discussions about how human biology relates to technology, and, like all advocates of open-source technology, a major part of the grinder ethos is to be incredibly transparent about their knowledge, their experiences, and their scientific methods with various kinds of experiments. Anyone can pick up where the last grinder left off, and create something useful. (, 2016, and David B, 2013.)

It is fair to point out that the forum-based, online discussions can sometimes be difficult for outsiders to engage with, and they follow no protocol or method, nor do they always report their findings via any kind of template.

But this is where grinders could certainly take advice offered by medical experts, such as biomedical materials engineer Deb Chachra, who has defended the grinder movement and offered advice to participants through a widely circulated talk at MIT in 2014, as well as her popular Twitter account, @debcha.

Chachra discussed this particular shortfall of the grinder movement on the podcast “Mindful Cyborgs” and suggested a centralized reporting apparatus as a solution to this issue:

“Part of [the grinder process] is actually having enough of an understanding of what the biological responses to implants are, or what are the quality issues with the materials, so that you can appropriately write about, document, share, what you’re doing…What I would kind of like to see is more of that being systematized and shared so essentially soft of a grassroots building up of this body of knowledge about what things work and what things don’t work.” (Chachra, 2015)

Grinders have limited resources, but are also faced with less pressure than academic scientists. (Lincia, 2015) So even when they do attempt to work within the bounds of accepted experimental procedures, there can be difficulties.

In one example, grinders used a chemical called Chlorin e6 to give themselves night vision or “dim light vision.” After publishing their findings on, the group, Science for Masses, faced criticism for using scientifically problematic methods of review and experimentation, despite a much more traditional approach to writing up than other grinders have used previously. (Lincia, 2015)

When the peer review process is based on blogs, forums, and basement labs, it doesn’t seem to matter so much that the original experiment wasn’t perfect, if it gets there eventually.


Despite the obvious fact that the cyborg future is already upon us, a codified approach to the ethics of enhancement experimentation is out of reach, and this is unfortunate. (Hansson, 2005) But this is because the academic debate only engages at either end of an extreme spectrum, and that needs to stop.

There is no relevant distinction between what is an ethically permissible application of a technology, based on classification as either therapy or enhancement.

Where the middle exists, it is already host to a new conversation, and the bioethical and medical communities must begin to engage with individuals on the ground.

Like so many experimental technologies in general, the best way to address cybernetic enhancement is to remove it from the debate around designer babies and eugenics, and consider its merits or possible utilities on its own terms.

Once a technology exists, it can’t be erased. It must be confronted and established, and using soft enhancements as a jumping off point can bring together scientists, grinders, doctors, philosophers and regulators to acknowledge that while human enhancement is happening, it is not inherently dangerous or unethical.

But it does need safety standards and guidelines, like anything else. Especially before the time comes when corporations and/or the government do try to co-opt the science (Brown, 2017).

Ultimately, cybernetic enhancement experiments are not only ethical, they are a base positive for society.

As John Harris writes, “Enhancements are so obviously good for us that it is odd that the idea of enhancement has caused, and still occasions, so much suspicion, fear, and outright hostility.” (2007)


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Alex Pearlman

Reporter. Bioethicist. Publishing on the intersection of ethics and policy with emerging science and tech.