Ethics will be the new green for tech in future
The brain, the root of our sense of self and identity, where we receive and process data, where our intellect and reason are seated as well as where our deepest feelings and aspirations reside, is the battle ground of how we will interact with computers in the future. If this battle is won, the very meaning of being a human being will be transformed.
The lives of people with paralysis and other physical disabilities will be changed. One company, Neuralink, led by Elon Musk, is developing integrated solutions where thousands of ultrafine, flexible, read-write electrodes can
be precisely inserted into the brain. These will be placed using cutting-edge precision robotics and will eventually be wirelessly controlled from a smartphone app to combat neurological disorders.
Using the platforms they’ve developed, Neuralink’s long-term objectives are to enhance how our brains function by adding a third artificial processing layer to them, an easy surgery, according to Neuralink researchers, that might take only a few hours. Based on current progress, this ambition is well within the bounds of possibility.
Elon Musk is not the only technology leader in the battle for the control of human brains. Mark Zuckerberg’s company is also funding research on brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that can pick up thoughts directly from your neurons and translate them into words. The researchers say they’ve already built an algorithm that can decode words from brain activity in real time. Those who will control this technology will have significant power and great responsibility.
To many, the possibility of such a future raises concerns. Researchers in neuroscience as well as neuro-ethicists have raised concerns about the potential impact of neuro-technology. Some foresee physiological, psychological and behavioural impact swell as other risks.
Some experts in the field have highlighted that there’s potential acute and chronic physiological impact associated with inserting thousands of electrodes into the brain. To take care of this potential impact regulators will have to have a clear understanding of this development and at the same time ensure that they don’t stand in the way of innovations that can make a difference and improve lives.
In cases where neuro-technology is used for medical purposes, trade offs will be necessary between the benefits and how these may affect persons mental state and behaviour. Medical researchers will have to watch closely the psychological impact of neuro-technology. Psychological impact may take time to manifest which will require long term tests to assess the impact instead of a move fast and break things approach as practiced by the Silicon valley
community. Factors such as the extent to which human behaviour will be altered are a real potential that will
require serious attention from medical researchers.
Beyond the impact of neuro-technology, there are also risks to be considered as the battle for the brains intensifies. The use of brain embedded technology presents a risk that its user may forfeit the service due to failure to pay. In which case the company providing the technology and service may decide to stop the service and thereby finding themselves deciding on brain functionality or lack thereof for a human being. Such a possibility raises an ethical dilemma, should society allow commercial entities to have control of brain functionality? It has to be said however that there are instances where human beings may use neuro-technology without much harm.
Imagine being able to sharpen your mind or increase memory retention with an app or change your mood at the flick of a switch. Scenarios such as this one also raise ethical concerns of a different nature such as, who gets access to the technology and who does not. If brain-computer interfaces truly do hold the ability to substantially enhance what a user can achieve, are we in danger of creating a two-tier society where the privileged are able to get better jobs, earn more, and have a higher quality of life, compared to those who are too poor or too “unworthy” in the eyes of society to get hold of the tech? In a context of countries with higher inequality challenge regulators may need to familiarise themselves with the possible effects of such technologies for society. Whilst concerns have to be raised about the potential impact and risks associated with neuro-technologies there’s an urgent need for informed thinking about plausible issues, and how to navigate them.
Several countries are already pondering how to handle neuro-rights. One South American country is in the process of regulating with an aim of protecting human rights. They have developed two bills that would make brain data protection a human right. In Europe, the OECD is expected this year to release a new set of principles for regulating the use of brain data. Developed countries are likely to develop mechanisms to deal with such new technologies.
The danger however is that developing countries may delay the development of legal instruments to safeguard themselves from the potential effects of such technologies. The area of neuro-technology will require more than just countries developing their own legal instruments. It will require a global consensus on how to safeguard society whilst still enabling everyone to benefit.
A public dialogue exercise led by the Royal Society found strong support for neural interfaces in situations where they enable patients to recover something that has been lost due to injury or a medical condition; but less support for the technology when it is used to enhance functions such as memory, concentration or physical skills among healthy people. Dr Tim Constandinou, Director of the Next Generation Neural Interfaces (NGNI) Lab, co-authored a report where he highlights that by 2040 neural interfaces are likely to be an established option to enable people to walk after paralysis and tackle treatment-resistant depression, they may even have made treating Alzheimer’s disease
Neuro-technology initiatives will offer us significant benefits, at the same time, they will bring new challenges. What is required is to know as much as possible about its capability and create safeguards to limit harm that may result from such technologies.
Ethics in Tech