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Deus Ex: Human Revolution Asks The Tough Questions

I’m a Deus Ex fanatic. Ever since the first game debuted in 2000 (well before I identified as a transhumanist), I’ve been hooked on the techno-futurist setting and the idea of body customization through implantation. Even though the games are heavy on the conspiracy angle, the designers do a great job of fleshing out the story and forcing the player to make tough ethical decisions given options that have no clear right answer.

Edios is back at it again with the newest installment: Human Revolution. The third game is a prequel, taking place after human augmentation is well established, but before the augmentation companies are able to create ‘nano-augmentation’ instead of bulky mechanical augmentation. Even before the game comes out, Edios has been hyping the release with very realistic ‘commercials’ and ‘messages’ from the games various factions. The first was put out by “Sarif Industries”, an in-game augmentation company promoting the benefits of enhancement.

Here’s that video:

The website mentioned at the end of the video actually works, and provides more realistic background information, including a timeline of augmentation from the 1960’s on. Just the other day, however, Edios put out a counter ad from ‘Purity First’, the in-game bioluddites. They ‘hacked’ the Sarif Industries website, so visiting the website now shows graphic overlays from Purity First (and some terrible audio). Here’s the Purity First retort:

Right off the bat, the commercial begins with emotion-laden sound and images not too far off from what we see currently. Compare, for instance, with this 2010 Citizens Against Government Waste ad:

Although much of the Purity First ‘ad’ plays to basic fear and emotions, it also does a good job of presenting ‘facts’ that, from our perspective in the real world, are still just issues.

At 0:44, for instance, the ‘ad’ questions the motivations behind augmentations. This is the basis for a debate I’ve had with people about the actual course of transhumanism. On one hand, I want to explain that augmentation is a choice, and that when it becomes available, people who object can simply choose not to get augmented (a stance that seems reasonable, but seems unpersuasive in gay marriage and marijuana legalization contexts.) They counter with worries like those exposed in the ‘ad’: Won’t people who choose to remain unaugmented get outpaced by the superior skills and abilities of the augmented? I’m not sure how to reply to that; yes, I suppose they will. After all, people wouldn’t get augmentations if those augmentations provided no benefit (note the lack of people with perfectly functional hands beating down the doors to get those hands replaced with even the newest model of bionic hands.) If the augmentations provide benefit, then by definition those with the augmented hands will have abilities that those without augmented hands don’t have. Those abilities might be worth a higher wage, depending on the field the augmented person is in. Unaugmented humans might get outpaced, but it remains their choice to stay in the past (although I’m not taking into account the financial aspects of augmentation; certainly some people will want to be augmented but be unable to afford it – I’ll address that in a bit.)

Around 0:56 – 1:07 the ‘ad’ plays on basic moral and ethical objections. The ‘playing God’ line has been trotted out many times over the years, and seems to take hold with at least some of the population. Consider this news report from British Sky News:

At around 1:15 the ‘ad’ broaches the topic of privacy; a debate that’s been ongoing not just between transhumanists and bioluddites, but also between transhumanists who differ on what level of intrusion is acceptable. On one hand, ideally we want the companies servicing our implants to be able to fix them and upgrade them with the same ease as our cell phones download service packs and our apps update from the Apple store or Droid marketplace. On the other hand, when one is considering implanting new eyes, augmenting our brains, and replacing our legs, do we really want someone else to have any measure of external control? Implants now are largely a one-and-done transaction; someone gets a new hip installed by a doctor and that’s it. But because augmentations are cutting edge technology, it seems like it would be beneficial to be able to upload software upgrades (like our computers and phones have) rather than get stuck with a sealed system that needs replacement entirely when it wears out. The question essentially boils down to whether we want implants that are more like a toaster (where the technology is unchangeable, and only entire replacement can offer additional functionality) or a cell phone (where software upgrades and occasionally firmware upgrades or even limited hardware upgrades [like a SD card] can extend the life of a device for some period of time.) Because implants are high-tech and presumably difficult to get to and expensive, I tend to think that some level of monitoring and upgradability is a reasonable tradeoff for increased intrusion. But the intrusion is there, and in a very private sense not yet seen.

Around 1:40 the ‘ad’ broaches militarization of augmentation. This, I think, is inevitable. Although a general anti-war (or even a more reasonable war-making) policy is fully consistent with the ‘ads’ message, I’m not sure that the militarization of augmentation is particularly objectionable when we’re upgrading the rest of our military equipment and spending fortunes on advanced new rifle systems today.

Around 1:55 the ‘ad’ argues that implants require continual doses of an anti-rejection drug; failure to take the drug causes the body to reject the implant. Because the drug companies have a captive audience, they can charge exorbitant prices for the drug. Because they chose to, people end up on the streets; unable to afford the ongoing costs of the anti-rejection treatments. The threshold question for real-world application seems to be whether implants like those in the game would require extensive doses of anti-rejection drugs. If so, then how might we prevent the drug companies from causing exactly the problems the ‘ad’ addresses? Aren’t drug companies already doing exactly what the ‘ad’ claims where anti-cancer treatments are concerned? Would the government be willing (or able) to either subsidize the cost of the drug or manufacture and distribute it outright to prevent pharmaceutical pricing abuse? If so, would the people feel better about government distributed drugs than corporate distributed drugs?

At 2:30 the ‘ad’ argues that the companies making the implants can shut them down at will; an issue wholly determines (as discussed above) by the level of control that they maintain over the augmentation once implanted. Certainly no company can shut off an artificial hip, but with more software based upgrades comes more external control. Gamers have dealt with companies that stop supporting their products, shut down servers, and otherwise make a purchased product worthless. Sony bans users from the Playstation Network regularly, making an expensive entertainment system much less valuable. The possibility exists that, given the right set of conditions, the same could be true of augmentations.

In all, for a three-and-a-half minute trailer, Eidos does a great job of highlighting the very real concerns some people have about transhumanism. Consider the IEET page on bio-luddites and compare it to the concerns in the trailer; they seem to match up almost word for word. I imagine the game will flesh out these concerns more fully, and maybe incorporate Repo Men like financial concerns and highlight the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots (even as the ‘haves’ are dragged down to ‘have-not’ status by the price of their anti-rejection drugs.)

I know that if the things transhumanists talk about come into being, they will change the nature of what it means to be human. I know that very advanced technology can do both great good and great evil. I know that some people will reject the idea of augmentation. Some argue that the issue will be so divisive that it will lead to civil war; others dismiss the claims as hyperbole and argue that the transition will go more or less smoothly. I’m not sure what to think just yet. Games, however, aren’t built on utopian scenarios; it’s no fun if there’s no conflict, and Deus Ex is giving us a look at something like a worst case scenario. Of course, the techno-utopian viewpoint will (presumably) also be explored in depth.

I, for one, can’t wait for the game.

John Niman is a law student at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He blogs at boydfuturist.wordpress.com.