Prosthetics and Free Software

Earlier today, I was chatting on IRC about the future of prosthetics. And I think an important point about prosthesis should be raised. Whilst I am definitely not a transhumanist, I think an important point was raised: that of Free Software in future prosthesis.

Now it is important to make the distinction between current prosthetics and that which will, at least I think, exist in the future. Current prosthetics are not a 'part' of the body in the way that I think future prosthetics will be. In the future prosthetics will be physically attached to nerve endings and (without surgical intervention) effectively permanent. In some ways this is a great thing that will improve lives of people endlessly but I think there are some traps that we will fall into.

Prosthesis, 16th century; A. Pare Wellcome L0008808

Again, drawing on the understanding that these pieces of hardware are physically, and for all intents and purposes permanently bound to the body; the software that runs these devices is paramount to the operation. Whether these be controlled just by nerve pulses and have no feedback or are actually feeding back touch information to the brain is, in some ways also important but not the focus of this post.

Software Needs to be Free, but this software especially needs to be free.

When we are talking about software that is essentially contributing to our experience of the world constantly, we need to have control. What happens when the company that the prosthesis starts demanding money otherwise it will shut down arms and legs of people that need it most. (of course this is a dire example) What if a malfunction in the server which the prosthetics call to causes a complete shutdown of all prosthetics everywhere? Even if this is a glitch, we have no way for the people using it to audit it. There is no consent to the shutting down of prosthetics.

Okay so, scaremongering aside, things are already happening in the real world which are similar to what I envision happening in the future. For example customers of 'Jawbone', a fitness tracker have had their service cut off without any warning. BBC News Link

My most realistic fear here is that people will get prosthetics that rely on online services to be up. There needs to be a realisation that there is a stark difference between a small fitness tracker which can be left at home easily and an implanted chip or body part.

Not making software free in this case is completely taking away the ability for the consumer to consent to any kind of 'hidden' processes going on. Again, I am not an advocate of fitness trackers but they can be left at home and will not track your every move (don't worry your mobile phone still does!( but again, that can be left at home)) We are talking unavoidable surveillance, not just tracking phones. It's scary that these organisation may soon have the power to track humans. And to top it all off, people aren't even that aware that their phones are being constantly tracked. Often I show people how to access their google location history and their shocked that it leads back years.

If this isn't scary to you have a look at this article Link and in the UK Link

In conclusion I think it's really important that any code that interfaces with a human is fully auditable and any data collection should be at an absolute minimum. Lest we fall slaves to the corporations who manufacture said interfaces.


Imagine how scary it could be if a prosthesis could operate with nerve feedback, and was hackable. That would, I think call for a completely new form of legislation.

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