As research leads to an increasingly sophisticated and fine-grained understanding of how our brains function, related neurotechnologies are likely to become equally sophisticated. As they do, our abilities to precisely control function, thinking, behavior and personality, will extend far beyond what is currently possible.
To get a sense of the emerging ethical and social challenges such capabilities potentially raise, consider this speculative near-future scenario:
Imagine that in a few years’ time, the UC Berkeley neural dust has been successfully miniaturized and combined with optogenetics, allowing thousands of micrometer-sized devices to be seeded through someone’s brain that are capable of monitoring and influencing localized brain functions. Now imagine this network of neural transceivers is wirelessly connected to an external computer, and from there, to the internet.
Such a network ? a crude foreshadowing of science fiction author Iain M. Banks’ “neural lace” (a concept that has already grabbed the attention of Elon Musk) ? would revolutionize the detection and treatment of neurological conditions, potentially improving quality of life for millions of people. It would enable external devices to be controlled through thought, effectively integrating networked brains into the Internet of Things. It could help overcome restricted physical abilities for some people. And it would potentially provide unprecedented levels of cognitive enhancement, by allowing people to interface directly with cloud-based artificial intelligence and other online systems.
Think Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Echo hardwired into your brain, and you begin to get the idea.
Yet this neurotech ? which is almost within reach of current technological capabilities ? would not be risk-free. These risks could be social ? a growing socioeconomic divide perhaps between those who are neuro-enhanced and those who are not. Or they could be related to privacy and autonomy ? maybe the ability of employers and law enforcement to monitor, and even alter, thoughts and feelings. The innovation might threaten personal well-being and societal cohesion through (hypothetical) cyber substance abuse, where direct-to-brain code replaces psychoactive substances. It could make users highly vulnerable to neurological cyberattacks.
Of course, predicting and responding to possible future risks is fraught with difficulties, and depends as much on who considers what a risk (and to whom) as it does the capabilities of emerging technologies to do harm. Yet it’s hard to avoid the likely disruptive potential of near-future neurotechnologies. Thus the urgent need to address ? as a society ? what we want the future of brain technologies to look like.
Moving forward, the ethical and responsible development of emerging brain technologies will require new thinking, along with considerable investment, in what might go wrong, and how to avoid it. Here, we can learn from thinking about responsible and ethical innovation that has come to light around recombinant DNA, nanotechnology, geoengineering and other cutting-edge areas of science and technology.
To develop future brain technologies both successfully and responsibly, we need to do so in ways that avoid potential pitfalls while not stifling innovation. We need approaches that ensure ordinary people can easily find out how these technologies might affect their lives ? and they must have a say in how they’re used.
All this won’t necessarily be easy ? responsible innovation rarely is. But through initiatives like this week’s NAS workshop and others, we have the opportunity to develop brain technologies that are profoundly beneficial, without getting caught up in an ethical minefield.
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