Nov 19, 2020 - Science

The tricky ethics of neurotechnologies

Illustration of a USB cable being plugged into a brain

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

As the science of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and other neurotechnologies progresses, researchers are calling for ethical guidelines to be established now — before the technology fully matures.

Why it matters: We’re still far away from technologies that fully access and even read the human brain, but the sheer power of such tools — and the highly personal data they could gather — means society needs to determine what they should do before they actually can do it.

What’s happening: Columbia University’s NeuroRights Initiative held a symposium today in conjunction with IBM on the scientific, security and social issues raised by neurotech.

  • Today scientists are able to read and write information in the brains of animals, and they’ve developed interfaces that allow humans to move computer cursors and more with only their thoughts.

The big picture: In the future, BCIs could provide an unprecedented view of the human brain at work, which in turn could unlock new clinical insights into largely untreatable mental and neurological diseases, as well as change how humans interface with the world.

  • “In 10 to 15 years, we could have something in our heads [that's] like an iPhone in our pockets,” Rafael Yuste, the director of Columbia’s NeuroTechnology Center, said at the symposium.

What they’re saying: The ethical issues raised by that power were the focus of IBM director of research Darío Gil’s symposium remarks, which touched on first-generation ethical principles for neurotech developed by the company.

  • “As the power of technology continues to increase, the governance of technology needs to go along with it,” Gil told Axios before the symposium.
  • “Every player that develops and creates technology that is at the cutting edge has a responsibility because the purpose of technologies is as a tool to help society.”

Details: Many of the ethical issues created by BCI — questions of transparency and fairness — resemble those raised by AI or even social media, only intensified.

  • It’s one thing for tech companies to track what we click on and what we watch, but data generated by the nervous system can be unconscious, which could fatally undermine principles of consent and the privacy.
  • And neurotechnology could go beyond reading the brain to effectively coding it, feeding it data that could influence thoughts and behaviors, which brings into question core concepts around free will.

To that end, Gil says IBM is committed to respecting mental privacy and autonomy, being transparent in its neurotech work, and ensuring that people have an equal opportunity to choose whether or not they want to use the technology.

  • The role of government isn’t yet clear, but Gil foresees something for neurotech like the White House Council on Bioethics, which in the past debated policies on stem cells, genetic engineering and more.

The catch: Scientific codes of ethics may not mean that much to notoriously independent players like Elon Musk, who has made promises about the potential for the BCI technology developed by his company Neuralink to eventually allow “AI symbiosis,” as he said at an event in August.

The bottom line: BCI could be a “revolution for humanity,” as Yuste put it. But revolutions have a way of getting out of hand.

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