Ethics, Ambient Intelligence, and the Emergence of Cyborgian Societies

Terrell Ward Bynum


Predicting the future of society is a risky activity typically left to fools and sages. Nevertheless, this presentation will contain outright predictions about the future of society and the future of ICT-related ethical issues. It will presuppose James Moor’s “policy vacuums” account of the nature and importance of information ethics, and it will assume the truth of Norbert Wiener’s prediction that cybernetic machines will play an increasingly important social role as time goes on. Most importantly, it will take as a central assumption Wiener’s prediction that machines and living organisms, increasingly, will be merged together to create entities that are part biological and part mechanical. Today, such beings are often called “cyborgs” (cybernetic organisms).

According to Wiener, all animals and some machines are cybernetic entities that take in information from their environment, then process that information in ways that empower them to react to their environment and adjust themselves to it. Such information processing activities include, for example, perceiving, recognizing, categorizing, remembering, calculating, inferring, deciding, acting, and so on. In the past, some philosophers have assumed – mistakenly, I believe – that only humans (and perhaps angels, devils and gods) can engage in such “sophisticated” activities as categorizing, recognizing, inferring, deciding and acting. In this presentation, I will assume that all humans, many animals, and some machines can engage in such activities. I also will assume that “aspects, parts and pieces” of such information processing activities can be electronically instilled into objects and organisms that did not have them in the past – thus, creating “ambient intelligence”.

Given the above-described assumptions, I will argue that today’s “information societies” are rapidly evolving into societies in which humans, other animals, and machines – even buildings, clothing, furniture, roadways, and other objects – will be interrelated and coordinated by ambient intelligence technology to create increasingly complex “cyborgian units”. Thus, when virtually everything interacts and communicates with everything else, and the difference between “online” and “offline” essentially disappears, then individual persons, particular animals, certain machines and other entities will be electronically united and coordinated to create powerful “cyborgian units” and thereby achieve previously unattainable goals. In such a society, a person or an animal or a machine or an object could function simultaneously as part of many different cyborgian units; and those units could also be combined to generate even larger and more sophisticated “meta-units”. Finally, all such units and meta-units working together could constitute an entire society – becoming, quite literally, a “cyborgian society”.

In the coming cyborgian societies, the above-described units and meta-units will utilize capacities and qualities of many different entities to bring into existence a staggering number of new possibilities that could not have been realized in the past. The result will be innumerable “policy vacuums” (to use Moor’s apt turn of phrase) that cry out for new laws, new rules of behavior, and new standards of good practice – new “policies” to assure that cyborgian societies will be ones in which justice and ethical behavior are encouraged and preserved.