Neurotechnology: The new “medicine”?
There is a new mantra out there to convince you that you need chips and circuits within your brain to have “privacy of thought”. It’s called neurotechnology, and it’s apparently the “greatest novelty” since the invention of the wheel.
This story begins in February 2013 in the United States Congress. At a joint meeting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, President Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union address and announced the launch of a large-scale, long-term scientific project, the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, which was a plan to use advanced neurotechnology to map the human brain.
This project, which Obama compared to the quest of putting man on the moon, was supposed to develop tools that would be applied to the brains of laboratory animals and human patients.
These tools (electronic, optical, molecular, and computational) would serve to record brain activity or to interfere with it, placing invasive (inside the brain) or non-invasive (above the skull) devices.
Why was Obama launching this project? Neurotechnology is necessary for scientific, clinical and economic reasons. From the perspective of science, it is key to understand the brain, the last frontier of knowledge of the human body. By understanding the brain, humanity would understand themselves from the inside for the first time.
From the point of view of medicine, the tools would facilitate the diagnosis, understanding and cure of psychiatric and neurological diseases, which are increasingly devastating in the population, he said
In terms of economics, neurotechnology will surely open up a huge field of development for companies and industries, as it happened with the Human Genome project [the great international genetic mapping initiative born in the late eighties], which multiplied investment by 124 in this field. The latter was the most compelling argument for the US Congress.
The BRAIN initiative, with an estimated funding of $6 billion is in its fifth year of the 12 planned in duration, and involves more than 500 laboratories that develop all kinds of neurotechnologies.
It is a methodological revolution for neuroscience, interested parties say, as it happened in biomedicine with the genome sequencing technique. This is not just happening in the US: since 2013, brain-focused projects have been launched in China, Japan, Korea, Australia, Canada, Israel and the European Union, joined in an international BRAIN initiative.
In addition to these public efforts, private, pharmaceutical and, above all, technology companies are increasingly joining the development of brain-computer interfaces that connect the brain to the Internet. These interfaces can be the equivalent of the iPhones of the future.
This neurotechnological revolution is good, necessary and, indeed, urgent, they claim, as readers with family or friends who suffer from neurological or psychiatric diseases know well, and for whom we need to develop more effective therapies.
But science is neutral, and these techniques, which can cause so much good to humanity, can also have negative consequences. It would be possible, for example, to use neurotechnology to read a person’s brain activity, or to interfere with their brain and change their behavior. In fact, old versions of this technology already exist.
This is not science fiction, it is something we already do with laboratory animals, and sooner or later it will be done in humans. How far are we? Since 2008, a laboratory in Berkeley (California) has been using magnetic scanners to increasingly guess which image a volunteer is thinking of.
Facebook is developing a non-invasive brain-computer interface, like an electronic cap, capable of deciphering the word the user is thinking of and writing it on the screen without using their fingers. These types of devices can revolutionize the industry, but also destroy our mental privacy.
Brain activity generates not only our conscious thoughts, but also our subconscious ones. Registering brain activity will make it easier, sooner or later, to access the subconscious.
Motivated by these and other advances, a group of 25 scientific experts, clinical engineers, psychologists, jurists, philosophers and representatives of different projects on the brain from around the world met in 2017 at Columbia University (New York) and proposed ethical rules for the use of these neurotechnologies.
“We think that we are facing a problem that affects human rights, since the brain generates the mind, which defines us as a species. It is, after all, our essence: thoughts, perceptions, memories, imagination, emotions, decisions …” That is true in part. But these experts got it wrong on one very key aspect. The brain does not generate the mind. The mind generated and feeds the brain. These projects are not meant to decipher the brain, but to attempt to decipher the mind, both conscious and subconscious.
To protect citizens from the misapplication of these technologies, they have proposed new human rights, called “neuro-rights”. Of these, the most urgent is the right to privacy of our thought, since the technologies to read mental activity are more developed than the technologies to manipulate it.
To defend mental privacy, they are working on three parallel lines. The first is to legislate “neuroprotection”: we think that the data obtained from the brain, which we call “neurodata”, should be protected with the maximum legal rigor, the same as that applied in organ donations and transplants. We ask that “neurodata” cannot be traded and that it can only be extracted with the consent of the individual, for medical or scientific reasons.
This would be a defensive measure to protect against abuses, but at the same time, in a second line of work, scientists and professionals propose proactive ideas: for example, that companies and organizations that manufacture these technologies adhere, from the outset to a code of ethics, just as doctors do with the Hippocratic Oath (although very few doctors actually follow it in practice).
The third line of action is engineering, and it consists in developing both hardware and software so that brain “neurodata” is kept private, and that it is possible to share certain information but not other data.
The goal is that most personal data never leaves the devices connected to our brain. One option is to apply systems that are already used with financial data:
Open source files, blockchain technology (so we always know where it came from), and smart contracts (to prevent data from escaping from the right hands). And, of course, it will be necessary to educate the public and ensure that no device can use a person’s data unless they authorize it.
This is just the beginning of tackling the problem. International organizations are working to make parliaments and governments aware of the need to act.
In some countries, stakeholders are already creating Digital Rights charters, within a National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence to prevent a new epidemic that will certainly affect the most fundamental human rights.