The word bioengineering comprises two ideas: (1) engineering, “application of techniques and principles of engineering,” and (2) bio, “relating to living systems.” However, because of the immense breadth of the prefix bio, bioengineering necessarily becomes a topic of considerable diversity. Because of this diversity of bioengineering, there is potential reach into issues regarding surveillance, security, and privacy, especially pertaining to corporations’ involvement in bioengineering advances. This entry delves further into the concept and genesis of bioengineering, looks at some recent advances produced via bioengineering, and concludes with an examination of how the field more specifically relates to surveillance, security, and privacy.
In attempting a more concrete grasp of the topic of bioengineering, a simple search turns up the following highly disparate bioengineering book topics: neurological control systems, artificial organs and prostheses, titanium materials (e.g., artificial hips), creating sustainable stream banks and slopes, biomedical engineering, embryonic stem cells, pollution prevention, visual prosthetics (e.g., artificial eyes and/or enhanced vision), tissue engineering and mechanobiology, the human machine, polymers for biomedical applications, computerized cancer diagnostics, brain imaging, sports medicine, using plants and/or bacteria to create new medicines, and immobilized enzymes. There are also books on careers in bioengineering and the sociological aspects of bioengineering—what it may mean for the “human condition.” One commonality among these disparate areas is a drive toward precision, an increased use of mathematical reasoning, and a goal of reproducibility, so that “this device” is not merely specialized to help “that” person but can be usefully extrapolated to a broader societal application and utility.
To some extent, the concept of bioengineering is reminiscent of science fiction movies and books, where humans are redesigned to live on high-gravity planets, to have gills like fish, or to see in the ultraviolet light like bees. However, in practical terms, bioengineering is being used today to help those who are blind to see, to help those who are maimed to walk again, and even to link individuals who are disabled with computers that they can control with thought alone. These are real-life scenarios, not science fiction. Also, there are goats making milk containing spider silk, which can be separated, spun, and used for stronger ropes, and bacteria producing human insulin for patients with diabetes.
Strictly speaking, genetically modified organism (GMO) foods are also examples of bioengineering. GMO foods have the vast potential to help many individuals if, for example, a full-protein rice could be made freely available so that no one would starve. However, many individuals are opposed to GMO foods, whether their fears are unwarranted or not. Yet the same individuals might gladly purchase the new GloFish, which is a genetically modified zebrafish in fluorescent colors.
As recently as 1976, bioengineering was considered a new scientific area. A text of that era described the newly coined term bioengineering as an interaction between engineers and biological scientists. Examples were given of collaborations between microbiologists and chemical engineers in the fermentation industry (e.g., beer and wine). Another example was the exemplary work of physiologists and mechanical engineers on prosthetic devices. Since that time, considerable progress has been made, and bioengineering is now an immensely diverse field of scientific endeavor.
In the broadest sense, bioengineering and biotechnology are causing considerable disparity of opinion with respect to appropriateness of patents, the role of patent laws, and even whether biological “inventions” should be patented or should be freely available. This has led to growing global action and discussion in the arena of bioethics. Who is, or who should be, “in charge” of bioengineering advances? Should this arena be treated somewhat as is the case for nuclear weapons, with global oversight committees and discussions as to what person or state should be permitted to make bioengineering advances?
As alluded to in the introduction of this entry, bioengineering can directly or indirectly be related to surveillance, security, and privacy. How is this so? Three words come to mind: corporate, proprietary, and patent rights. Each of these involves elements of surveillance and security, as well as privacy. Let’s start with security. First, the research and development laboratories for a given project would want security for their innovation until it is ready to be released. Second, security would, or might, be necessary in terms of certain inventions that might not be appropriately released to the general public. Third, there would also be corporate interests, due to investments, and a need for security during development. Privacy rights come in for individuals, who might want to “design” their child to be healthier and not carry a dangerous genetic defect.
In 2004, the Biomedical Engineering Society published a list of professional obligations. These include the following: (a) abilities, skills, and knowledge to be used to enhance public welfare, health, and safety; (b) patients’ privacy and confidentiality rights as primary concerns; and (c) full compliance with scientific and research guidelines in terms of ethical considerations and duties, respecting the rights of the public, colleagues, and both human and animal subjects.
Bioengineering has an immense potential for good and a concomitantly immense potential for creating havoc in the absence of serious reflection as to how these potentials can be protected, safe-guarded, and directed toward the benefit of humanity as a whole.
Laura A. Andersson
See also Bioinformatics ; Biometrics ; Biosurveillance ; DNA Technology
Baille, H. and T. K. Casey. Is Human Nature Obsolete? Genetics, Bioengineering and the Future of the Human Condition (Basic Bioethics, eds. G. McGee and A. Caplan). Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.
Biomedical Engineering Society. “Biomedical Engineering Society Code of Ethics.” http://www.bmes.org/files/CodeEthics04.pdf (Accessed August 2017).
Valentuzzi, Max. Understanding the Human Machine: A Primer for Bioengineering (Series on Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering, Vol. 4). Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific, 2004.