Experimental stem cell treatments, advanced bionic limbs and DNA-targeted therapies are just a few of the extraordinary medical treatments that recent advances in science are making available. These are breakthroughs that thrill scientists and entrepreneurs alike, but they come with ethical questions that merit serious consideration.

At the FutureFest conference in London last weekend, organized by innovation charity Nesta, social psychologist Bertolt Meyer raised some of those questions. Meyer, who teaches at the University of Zurich, was born without his lower left arm and has always had a prosthesis, which mostly made him ashamed of his disability. “What it gave me was what I already had, which was a sense of shortcoming,” he said.

In 2009, however, Meyer got an i-limb, a fully articulated artificial hand, and suddenly he was cool. People’s reactions to him changed. “I’m no longer seen as incompetent,” he said. “This technology has given me a sense of being competent.”

But the i-limb can cost as much as US$ 130,000 and that is clearly unaffordable for most people. Meyer highlighted the case of Matthew James, a teenager from Berkshire in England, who wrote to the Mercedes Formula One racing team in 2011 asking if they would buy the i-limb for him. Then 14, James said that in return the team could add its logo to the arm, turning him into a walking advert. The team agreed to buy the arm, but without sponsoring it.

The story was presented as a heart-warming moment of hope, but Meyer saw it as appalling. “We’re forcing a 14-year-old boy to come up with a business plan to get the technology he needs to overcome his disability,” he said.

In a later presentation at FutureFest, Anab Jain, the founder of the design consultancy Superflux, made a similar point. She talked about the rise in biotech tourism, which sees affluent patients travelling the world to take advantage of treatments that are not available locally. Experimental stem cell therapies in China, for example, have drawn patients from across the world.

However, the question of whether it is right that the best medical technology should be available only to those who can afford it is straightforward compared to the next question – What happens when medical technology offers us the potential to be “superhuman”.

Jain quoted geneticist George Church, who believes that synthetic biology will soon offer superpowers, while Meyer cited the example of Paralympians like Oscar Pistorius who have been accused of having an unfair advantage over Olympic athletes.

Meyer raised the possibility of people choosing to have a healthy limb amputated in order to gain the extra abilities offered by a bionic replacement. Would it be ethical for doctors to remove a healthy limb? Would it count as a kind of cosmetic surgery? And would the advantages enjoyed by bionic employees and athletes incentivize more people to follow their lead?

And these enhancements would not stop with our limbs. Researchers have created a chip that can help the brain to form memories. Experiments on healthy rats showed that the chip could improve memory function by up to 70%. The chip has the potential to treat patients with Alzheimer’s or other memory problems, but what if healthy people opted to have such a chip fitted?

It is not unusual for healthy people to use medical treatment for other reasons. People have used drugs meant for ADHD to help them study, for example, while all kinds of athletes have used steroids and other substances to gain a competitive advantage.

We will soon have technology available that promises unimaginable enhancements. How will we deal with them? Meyer says: “I cannot answer these questions, but I would like to raise them.”

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Author: Shane Richmond is the author of Computerised You: How Wearable Technology Will Turn Us Into Computers. He writes about technology for the World Economic Forum.

Image: A researcher uses a microscope at a laboratory in Seongnam, near Seoul, June 28, 2011. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak