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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Neural Implantations: Ethics of ‘Mind Control’

Jazzy Benes ’21

Dr StClaire/ Pixabay

Jazzy Benes ’21 is a senior majoring in neuroscience, studio arts, and biology and a 2020-21 health care ethics intern at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

In the heart of Silicon Valley we are constantly enticed by the newest technological advances. With the big influencers Grimes and Lil Uzi Vert publicly announcing their willingness to become experimental subjects for Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain implantation device, we are left wondering if future technology will actually give us “the knowledge of the Gods.” Is it part of the natural order for humans to become omniscient beings? Who will have access to the devices? What other ethical considerations must be discussed before releasing such technology to the public?

Neuralink plans to use its brain-computer interface (BCI) design to help individuals with neurological and psychiatric disorders by decoding and stimulating neural activity. To accomplish this, the company aims to use the Link containing 1024 electrodes. These electrodes can record signals in the brain, decode the information, and stimulate signals back to the brain to elicit activity. Musk plans to make the device inexpensive and accessible to all who desire it. However, any cost associated with the device may limit its access to those in society who can afford it. Having unlimited access to information through a BCI system has the potential to further separate society into those with, and those without such access. Will feelings of superiority arise? Will those with access to the device have the ability to reach higher prospects in life while others continually fall behind? These worries may not be at the forefront of our minds since Neuralink announced in the summer 2020 status update that their primary goal, at the moment, is to launch the device for medical purposes. Nevertheless, Neuralink raises questions that will need to be addressed sooner than we might think. 

Neuralink is not the first company with plans for a neuro implantation medical device. In just 2020 alone, three other BCI systems were introduced to the scientific and technological community: Paradromics, Synchron, and a neural prosthesis. The Paradromics neural implant will provide individuals with paralysis a way of communicating. Synchron’s BCI system also provides a means of communication through typing for paralyzed people. Researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience designed a neuroprosthetic brain implant that renders artificial vision. Brain implants developed before 2020 include Second Sight for vision restoration, cochlear implants to recover hearing, deep brain stimulation for movement disorders, and vagus nerve stimulation for epilepsy and treatment-resistant depression.

A significant issue that arises from developing technologies for the disabled community is the assumption that disabled persons desire the abilities of what some abled individuals may define as “normal.” Individuals with disabilities may object to technologies intended to make them fit an able-bodied norm. “Normal” is relative to each individual, and it could be potentially harmful to use a deficit view of disability, which means judging a disability as a deficiency. However, this is not to say that all disabled individuals will reject a technology that may enhance their abilities. Instead, I believe it is a consideration that must be recognized when developing technologies for the disabled community, and it can only be addressed through communication with disabled persons. As a result, I believe this is a conversation that must be had with the community for whom the technology is developed--disabled persons.

Another ethical consideration when performing invasive procedures that this technology would entail is receiving informed consent and voluntary participation. Some individuals may be unable to express their understanding and acceptance of the risks and benefits associated with their involvement since these neural implantation devices are meant to improve communication and develop motor abilities. Without explicit informed consent or participation, we cannot dutifully respect an individual’s autonomy. Steps must be taken to ensure an individual understands the risks and benefits of implanting a device in the brain. Furthermore, with new technological advances, the developers may not be entirely aware of potential future risks. 

With technologies that aim to address disabilities, we walk a fine line between therapeutics and enhancement. Though not the first neural implant medical device, the Link may have been the first BCI system openly discussed for its potential transhumanism uses, such as “enhanced cognitive abilities, memory storage and retrieval, gaming, telepathy, and even symbiosis with machines.” Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the use of the Link for human testing, we cannot accurately assess the device’s potential positive or negative outcomes. Instead, we can take a look at previous technologies with beneficent intentions but detrimental consequences.  

Social media may not fall precisely into the realm of transhumanism, but it is intended to enhance the social experience of humans. These social platforms strive to connect us better to family, friends, news, and other interests. However, research indicates many Americans find social media to harm our society. Studies show the addictive properties of social platforms negatively affect our mental health. Other surveys reveal Americans find social media to blame for the polarization seen in the U.S. The adverse effects of social platforms are opposite to the original intentions, but it indicates the unanticipated impacts of new technology. 

Additionally, a concern many have about internet platforms is the selling of our information to third parties. Websites are not the only perpetrators of sharing our data; there are even biotechnological tools doing this, such as 23andMe. Of course, there are ways of protecting or deleting our data by reading the fine print and not consenting to specific terms. However, there are still regulations that prevent us from fully controlling the information we share. With any system that can record our biological or personal data, we must be wary of confidentiality and privacy protection.

The issue becomes more complex as BCI systems record and decode neuronal activity - the same activity that encodes our thoughts, personalities, decisions, memories, actions, and everything else that comprises us. With these devices recording information that makes up each individual’s human experience, we run the risk of simplifying our seemingly complex life down to just bits of recordable and shareable data. These systems make us consider what it means to be human. What does it mean to be human if, within fractions of seconds, artificial intelligence can decode our brain’s electrical activity that makes up our human experience?

With such questions it may seem like we are falling into the Matrix, a Black Mirror, or a Rick and Morty episode. Even so, it is crucial to recognize we run the risk of giving up our free will with the advancement of technology and science. Many BCI devices perform their functions by taking our endogenous electrical neural activity and translating it to stimulate other electrical impulses. If a tetraplegic individual were to think of typing a letter, and the machine’s output causes a letter to be typed, who or what is the creator of that typed letter? Is it human thought or the computer system? With artificial intelligence as the mediator between thoughts and actions, we struggle with self-determination. Furthermore, suppose the devices have the power to convey internal neural activity to the external world. In that case, device security must be a high priority, and this is something developers at Neuralink are currently addressing. There are further discussions to be had regarding our interactions with technology.

The ethical considerations outlined here are not any indication that the worst scenario will come from BCI systems, nor is it to say the best will happen. The ideas shared are intended to prompt our thinking in order to ensure that we respect individuals, society, and life as a whole. 

This is a simplified version of a complex issue. Feel free to comment below to continue the discussion. 

Mar 1, 2021

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