Ethics & Neurotechnology

The State of Neurotechnology in 2018

It has been awhile since we last posted about neurotechnology. So, where do things stand today? Where are the cyborgs already? Where is our unlimited memory capacity? Interesting developments bring the brain and technology are trotting along, and there is still a long, and exciting path up ahead. Two recent articles from The Guardian and The Economist highlight some aspects of the current state of neurotechnologies, so these seem like a great place to get back up to speed. 

Just as many of the world’s most insanely rich people are deeply dabbling in out-of-this-planet endeavors, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, others are dropping big dollars a bit more inwardly – into our brain. Paul Allen (of Microsoft founding fame) funded the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and Elon Musk (wait, where have we heard that name before?) started Neuralink as major initiatives to jump-start our brains into a future where we are directly connected to our technological creations. Just as in the latest round in the space race, with all of these privately funded ventures, things will get real interesting, real fast.

 “Neurotechnology, Elon Musk and the goal of human enhancement,” The Guardian, January 1, 2018

So, how are we going to arrive at our point in human evolution where are brains are interfaced with non-biological computational power? What might keep us from reaching this state, and even if when so, how might it change our definition of being human?  

Three scientists from the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the University of Washington take on these questions and more in their report for The Economist at … 

 “Grey matter, red tape: In search of serendipity,” The Economist, originally appearing the print edition of the Technology Quarterly, January 6, 2018.

There are many wild, ominous, and crazy-cool efforts in progress many of which are already appearing in our hospital recovery rooms. It will only be a matter of time before more tangible advancements in neurotechnology will show up in our neighborhoods. 

What do you think? Will you be ready to jack your brain into the machine? 


Beware of the Neuroscience Revolution

Great strides are occurring in neuroscience and neurotechnologies, and the public must begin its global debate to pro-actively prepare and plan how we will deal with the potentially-horrifying scientific advances.

This is a bit of an exaggerated summary of the warning proposed by neurobiologist, James Olds, who is the director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, in his recent op-ed article in The Washington Times.

There is certainly a decent pace on the advancement of neurotechnology, particular in areas that are focused on healing the body due to neurological disorders and neuro-trauma. There is also a large, continuing effort from neurbiologists, physicists, and philosophers for deepening our understanding of brain function and figuring out just how the mind “thinks.” If neuroscience ever experiences a great leap forward in fundamental knowledge of the brain, much like physics experienced critical leaps with GalileoNewton, and Einstein and Companyand more Company, our society will likely be heavily affected… and it would not be clear what sort of positive or negative effects might occur just from this new, basic understanding.

And, with a complete fundamental physics, so to speak, of brain function will also come a major bound in advancements of directly integrated digital components with the brain and other neurotechnological devices. It is these sorts of potential developments that the public and policy makers would want to have some sort of firm grasp on–both in the scientific understanding as well as the ethical implications–before any unforeseen neurotechnology providing a broad negative impact on society becomes out of hand or out of control.

This new, basic understanding, however, has not yet arrived, and it is not sitting on the horizon.

Without doubt, it is certainly important that more people are aware of the ongoing developments in neuroscience and neurotechnology, so that that we may keep our ethical beliefs in check with the technological applications. However, it is also important that the neuroscience is not limited at this time, in a similar way stem cell research has been recently stifled. (Although, there is certainly an argument for this comparison that the current administration’s distaste for stem cell programs drove the wonderful successes of non-embryonic stem cell discoveries.) Because, the fact of the matter is that this deep neurological understand is still far off… the brain system is a complex system, and this nascent field must produce new, general fundamentals before it will be capable of modeling and predicting complete brain behavior.

Unless, of course, we are blessed with a “Neuro-Einstein,” we still have a lot of work to do.

“OLDS: Preparing for a neuroscience revolution” :: The Washington Times :: August 24, 2008 :: [ READ ]

James Olds Kransnow Blog [ VIEW ]

The President’s Council on Bioethics: Neuroethics [ VISIT]

“Decade of the Mind” :: Philosophy, Ethics and Humanity in Medicine vol 3 no. 7, February 20, 2008 by Manfred Spitzer :: [ READ ]

US Intelligence Reviews the Future Role of Neurotechnology

Today, the National Research Council released a 202-page report covering the current developments in research related to cognitive neuroscience, and provides extensive recommendations to the United States intelligence community on what issues and technologies should be closely monitored. The progress in this broad field is rapid, and the NRC clearly states that our intelligence efforts are at a disadvantage with a low number of qualified agents involved in analyzing developments and providing recommendations to decision makers.

The report was commissioned by the Defense Intelligence Agency to identify neurotechnologies that will develop within the next twenty years, with a particular focus on potential military applications and their implications.

Detailed analysis of current and future technologies for the detection of deception,neuropsychopharmacologyfunctional neuroimagingcomputational biology, anddistributed human-machine systems are covered in the extensive report. In addition, the ethical and cultural ramifications of these neurotechnologies are reviewed by the reporting team.

Although the report focuses on specific, yet mostly still speculative, technological advancements, it’s primary goal is to provide a guideline to help the intelligence community improve itself so that it may more effectively detect, monitor, and evaluate the developments at home and (more importantly) abroad. It seems to say–rather blatantly–that neurotechnology will be a critical player in the future of our world, and very possibly the future of our world-wide military environment, and that our intelligence agencies are currently poorly equipped from an academic level to nimbly deal with these technologies as they present themselves from other nations or even from terrorist organizations.

In other words, it is time to take neurotechnology very seriously and bring our intelligence community up to par–and hopefully surpass the level–with this developing field.

By covering the broad range of current estimates as to what forms of neurotechnologies might find their way into military operations, the report also appears to provide an overview of where this research could lead our society. Many of the applications are certainly not wholly appealing, and would certainly lead to a future world that might be even more scary to live in–in a much more subtle way–than that of the previous world of “duck-and-cover“.

In particular, a recent article written by Tom Burghardt for Global , was a bit of a “freak-out” over DARPA‘s “mysterious” efforts of military applications of neuroscience, referred to as “operational neuroscience.” Neuron News optioned not to feature the article here as the author “preferred” to use too many “quotes” to emphasize “scary” words and “phrases.” The “article” also created quite a “flood” of blogging in the “anti-government” and “everyone-is-out-to-get-us” community, that we felt we should keep out of the fray at the time. (We also feel that we should relax on the “quotes”!)

There are serious implications of neurotechnologies, and many of them could result in situations very undesirable for the continued long-term success of our species. However, it is important that we approach the developments not as political scare-mongers, but as educated citizen scientists who may appreciate the potentials of the technologies, and understand them well enough that we might also appropriately evaluate their ethical implications.

“Uncle Sam Wants Your Brain” :: Wired :: August 13, 2008 :: [ READ ]

“Report: spies need to stay on top of neuroscience research” :: ars technia :: August 13, 2008 :: [ READ ]

“Brain will be battlefield of future, warns US intelligence report” :: The Guardian, UK :: August 13, 2008 :: [ READ ]

“Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies” :: [ READ THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY ] from The National Academies Press

Upgrade the Human out of Existence

Wanna place a little wager? Or, let’s just argue about this one for a moment…

What will be the demise of the species Homo sapiens?

An asteroid? Space invaders? Nuclear war? How about too many wired humans thanks to sweeping advancements in neurotechnology by the Year 2075?

Sir Martin Rees, a renowned cosmologist and professor at Cambridge University, bets that neurotechnology might be one route to our future extinction. In fact, Rees has made some strong predictions about humanity’s near future in general, which are presented in his recent book, Our Final Hour.

Of primary interest to our readers is Rees’ opinion that our species has survived for as long as we have because the fundamental way our bodies work has remained unchanged. Altering our function, say, by plugging into a computer chip interfaced directly with our brains, might lead to the end of our days as a species (at least in our current iteration). The real concern here is that we might get carried away with our potential future technological ability to “upgrade” our brains and bodies using artificial implants of mini-computer processors .

So, how many silicon chips does it take to make you more computer than human? Will our bodies adapt to the new technology if we progress with it slowly enough? These are just a slice of ethical and biological issues that will likely be debated as new developments occur. If the discussions… and likely protests… don’t happen any time soon, then you’ll be sure to see a fury of argument after we see someone walking down the street with something blinking in her skull.

What do you think? Post your comments and thoughts by clicking on the “What do you think” link below.

Read the article from the San Diego Union-Tribune ]

The Ethics of Neurotechnology

Large wakes of ethical outcries tend to follow new applications of genetic research. Among the many concerns are parents deciding how to engineer their undeveloped child into the “perfect” human being.

These public debates are so massive that legislation is in the works for placing bans on certain types of genetic work. We seem to have a difficult time allowing ourselves to take advantage of beneficial technologies (in the name of bettering our health and well-being) for fear of evil-doers altering these technologies for use against our well-being.

recent opinion article from the Economist, brings up these same ethical cries in another human arena: neuroscience. The dooms-day warnings presented here focus on how neuroengineering technologies can destroy our privacy, provide body- and personality-altering drugs to the rich, and potentially bring down the curtain on what we currently deem important in “being human”.

Although some of these concerns are just as valid as worries about the unproven ways genetic engineering can bring negative effects to our society, a key difference when applied to neuroengineering is in that of choice. Many (but not all) genetic technologies are applied before an embryo develops, so the resulting altered human does not have any say as to what is to become of it. On the other hand, plugging into a memory enhancing neuron device must be implemented by yourself.

The final sense that is portrayed in this article is that the authors are scared to discover what we really are all about. What will we do if the claims from philosophers and theologians as to what is the essence of being human is debunked by future discoveries in brain research? The argument made here seems to be that if this happens, then we will all of a sudden not be human anymore. We may know the truth, but that science doesn’t match with what we want.

The prospects of a mad scientist or Big Brother controlling our society via genetic and neuroengineering are certainly frightening. However, they just aren’t very likely unless the voting public remains painfully uneducated. Instead, an equally scary world is one in which we allow policy to force limitations on our development as a society because we don’t want to take the risk of finding out that what we want the world to be like is not really the case.

No matter what deeper understandings come out of future neuroscience research, we will still be human. The only difference is that we will really know what it means to be human, instead of just hoping and guessing. Just because it’s uncomfortable, doesn’t mean we should hide from reality. This is often referred to as denial.

[Read the article]

Last updated August 7, 2022