With brain implants imminent, scientists point out big ethical issues

Brittany A. Roston - Nov 10, 2020, 2:01pm CST
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With brain implants imminent, scientists point out big ethical issues

It’s inevitable that we’ll see brain implants become a common piece of technology — first for those who suffer from certain neurological disorders like epilepsy, then later on as an enhancement for the average person looking for a cognitive boost. Despite growing research and development in the field of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), there has been little progress when it comes to the ethics of this technology.

Two new papers have been published by researchers with North Carolina State University addressing the ethical matters around BCI technology, including external devices that aren’t implanted and internal devices that are implanted in the brain. The researchers pay particular focus on implanted BCIs and such technologies intended for cognitive enhancement.

Put simply, BCI devices are designed to take brain signals and translate them into data for a computer to utilize. Perhaps the best example of such technology comes from Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which recently gave a demonstration of a brain implant involving pigs. Musk presented the technology as promising for people suffering from neurological conditions, among other things.

Veljko Dubljević, a co-author on both of the new papers, pointed out the particularly tricky issue of implants, stating:

The invasive devices are more efficient, since they can read signals directly from the brain. However, they also raise more ethical concerns. For example, invasive BCI technologies carry more associated risks such as surgery, infection, and glial scarring – and invasive BCI devices would be more difficult to replace as technology improves.

Among other things, the papers note that there are two areas, in particular, that should get priority when it comes to exploring ethical considerations: the psychological and physical effects of brain-computer interfaces.

Multiple issues are presented, including the potential long-term effects of these devices, whether it is ethical to use animals to test invasive technologies, and what kind of psychological effects may manifest related to various BCI technologies.

The researchers present one example of potential unwanted psychological outcomes, noting a study in which people with epilepsy were given an advanced warning of seizures via an invasive BCI — and some of those patients went on to develop ‘radical psychological distress’ as a result.

The researchers also explore the potential future use of BCIs for enhancing cognition, a technological future that would expand beyond the current trend of using ‘smart drugs.’ If someone with an enhancing implant takes a test, are the results ‘authentic’ as they would be from someone who doesn’t have a BCI?

Such ethical questions need to be explored, the researchers note, but little work has been accomplished so far. Dubljević explained:

Ultimately, these two papers get at some of the big questions that we need to address as a society about BCI technologies. The technologies are coming whether we’re ready or not. How will we regulate them? Who will have access to them? How can they be used? We need to start thinking about those questions now.


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