Giving computers access to our brains can unlock so much of our minds’ capability. But what’s stopping scientists (or governments) from going too far?
As technology becomes increasingly intertwined with our daily lives, neurotech, which involves connecting brains to computers, seems like a logical next step.
Neurotech aims to “collect, interpret, infer or modify information generated by any part of the nervous system.” It covers a wide range of research and applications, from studying how the brain works to managing chronic pain. This emerging technology has already contributed life-changing solutions to previously irreversible conditions. Cochlear implants have enabled the deaf to hear, deep brain stimulation has reduced tremors in Parkinson’s disease sufferers, and brain implants have allowed paralyzed patients to regain movement.
These promising results have encouraged the development of more neurotech applications, not just in the field of medicine, but also in security, mental health, entertainment and virtual reality. Neurotech patent filings from the US exceeded 7,000 from 2008 to 2016, with Boston Scientific and Medtronic as the biggest corporate filers. With the technology quickly advancing—and becoming more invasive—the idea of neurotech as a constant and deeply interlinked presence in our lives appears inevitable.
But when others (human or machine) are given so much access and control over the one part of our body that commands almost every other part, there is reason to be concerned. Can neurotech get to the point where mind control is possible?
Two experiments point to this possibility. In one, a team of researchers at Columbia University, led by neurobiologist Rafael Yuste, was able to make a mouse perform a certain action by triggering the neurons that were active whenever it did this particular action. In another study, MIT colleagues Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu implanted a false memory into a mouse’s mind.
And it’s not just mind control we have to worry about. Privacy issues are undoubtedly raised when obtaining deep-seated and unconscious information from someone. Discrimination could arise from categorising people based on their intelligence. Authoritarian regimes could use neurodata to surveil or manipulate people’s behavior. There’s also the need to account for misinterpretation of data that could negatively affect decision-making, as well as unexpected side effects, whether physical, mental or societal, that can occur.
To make sure that neurotech’s advancement does not proceed indiscriminately, it is crucial that ethical questions are explored with every new development. Responsible innovation calls for the thoughtful consideration of ethical problems and the willingness to step back from a project should any issues arise. This may also require subjecting their work to regulations and safeguards to ensure that human rights are not breached.
Several groups have already recognized and acted on this need for an ethical perspective. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development put out a statement outlining general guiding principles to be applied in neurotechnology. The NeuroRights Initiative was launched in Columbia University with the goal of protecting human rights within neurotech. At the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative, a Neuroethics Working Group has been established to explore ethical issues of novel brain technologies.
Although the prospects of neurotech’s extensive uses are exciting, its potential misuse and abuse also needs to be examined. It’s a tricky balancing act that will need reflection, cooperation and commitment, not just from scientists, but from companies, governments and individuals too. As neuroethicist Winston Chiong argues, ethical questions “are not just the domain of scientists, engineers, or even professional ethicists, but are part of larger societal conversation we’re beginning to have about the appropriate applications of technology, and personal data and when it's important for people to be able to opt out or say no.”
Bringing awareness to the need for neuroethics is only the first step.
Gil, Dario, “The Ethical Challenges of Connecting Our Brains to Computers.”, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-ethical-challenges-of-connecting-our-brains-to-computers/
Other Related Sources:
Hudson, Richard L., “The ethics of neurotechology come under sharper scrutiny”, Science | Business, https://sciencebusiness.net/news/ethics-neurotechology-come-under-sharper-scrutiny
Weiler, Nicholas. “Unraveling the Ethics of New Neurotechnologies”, UC San Francisco, https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2019/07/415051/unraveling-ethics-new-neurotechnologies