By Nicholas West
There seems to be a troubling uptick around “ethics” recently within scientific circles that are focusing on robotics, artificial intelligence, and brain research. I say troubling because embedded within the standard appeals for caution which should appear in science, there also seems to be a tacit admission that things might be quickly spiraling out of control, as we are told of meetings, conventions, and workshops that have the ring of emergency scrambles more than debating society confabs.
Yesterday, Activist Post republished commentary from Harvard which cited a 52-page Stanford study looking into what Artificial Intelligence might look like in the year 2030. That report admits that much of what the general public believes to be science fiction – like pre-crime, for example – is already being implemented or is well on the way to impacting people’s day-to-day lives. We have seen the same call for ethical standards and caution about “killer robots” when, in fact, robots are already killing and injuring humans. Really all that is left to be considered, presumably, is the degree to which these systems should be permitted to become fully autonomous.
The same dichotomy between properly addressing the role of future technology and “uh oh, I think the genie is out of the bottle” also appears in the following article from Arizona State University, which some readers might remember was the source of a whistleblower that came to Activist Post some years ago with extreme concern about a secret DARPA program being conducted at Arizona State that aimed to develop a form of remote mind control using the technology of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. One of the ways that this technology could become remote-controlled is via the use of “neural dust” or “smart dust” that literally would open a two-way connection between brain and computer. You will read more about where that technology stands today in the article below, as well as other forms of implants that are slated for development.
It used to be the case that I would highlight a select few words from university, military, and scientific press releases; this time, the entire article would have to be highlighted, as it runs the full gamut of open admission about what previously has been “conspiratorial” or “sci-fi” (there is even mention of geoengineering here).
Lastly, can we really entrust the exact same players who are developing these systems – many for profit and control – to be involved in the formulation of an ethical framework?
If you share a concern that the technology we have developed is beginning to take on a life of its own, please share this information as we try to keep pace and hopefully corral our own creations into the most positive functions possible.
Considering Ethics Now Before Radically New Brain Technologies Get Away From Us
Imagine infusing thousands of wireless devices into your brain, and using them to both monitor its activity and directly influence its actions. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, and for the moment it still is – but possibly not for long.
Brain research is on a roll at the moment. And as it converges with advances in science and technology more broadly, it’s transforming what we are likely to be able to achieve in the near future.
Spurring the field on is the promise of more effective treatments for debilitating neurological and psychological disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and depression. But new brain technologies will increasingly have the potential to alter how someone thinks, feels, behaves and even perceives themselves and others around them – and not necessarily in ways that are within their control or with their consent.
This is where things begin to get ethically uncomfortable.
Because of concerns like these, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) are cohosting a meeting of experts this week on responsible innovation in brain science.
Where are neurotechnologies now?
Brain research is intimately entwined with advances in the “neurotechnologies” that not only help us study the brain’s inner workings, but also transform the ways we can interact with and influence it.
For example, researchers at the University of California Berkeley recently published the first in-animal trials of what they called “neural dust” – implanted millimeter-sized sensors. They inserted the sensors in the nerves and muscles of rats, showing that these miniature wirelessly powered and connected sensors can monitor neural activity. The long-term aim, though, is to introduce thousands of neural dust particles into human brains.
The UC Berkeley sensors are still relatively large, on par with a coarse piece of sand, and just report on what’s happening around them. Yet advances in nanoscale fabrication are likely to enable their further miniaturization. (The researchers estimate they could be made thinner than a human hair.) And in the future, combining them with technologies like optogenetics – using light to stimulate genetically modified neurons – could enable wireless, localized brain interrogation and control.
Used in this way, future generations of neural dust could transform how chronic neurological disorders are managed. They could also enable hardwired brain-computer interfaces (the original motivation behind this research), or even be used to enhance cognitive ability and modify behavior.
The BRAIN Initiative is one of the Obama administration’s ‘Grand Challenges.’
In 2013, President Obama launched the multi-year, multi-million dollar U.S. BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). The same year, the European Commission launched the Human Brain Project, focusing on advancing brain research, cognitive neuroscience and brain-inspired computing. There are also active brain research initiatives in China, Japan, Korea, Latin America, Israel, Switzerland, Canada and even Cuba.
Together, these represent an emerging and globally coordinated effort to not only better understand how the brain works, but to find new ways of controlling and enhancing it (in particular in disease treatment and prevention); to interface with it; and to build computers and other artificial systems that are inspired by it.
Cutting-edge tech comes with ethical questions
This week’s NAS workshop – organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and supported by the National Science Foundation and my home institution of Arizona State University – isn’t the first gathering of experts to discuss the ethics of brain technologies. In fact there’s already an active international community of experts addressing “neuroethics.”
Many of these scientific initiatives do have a prominent ethics component. The U.S. BRAIN initiative for example includes a Neuroethics Workgroup, while the E.C. Human Brain Project is using an Ethics Map to guide research and development. These and others are grappling with the formidable challenges of developing future neurotechnologies responsibly.
It’s against this backdrop that the NAS workshop sets out to better understand the social and ethical opportunities and challenges emerging from global brain research and neurotechnologies. A goal is to identify ways of ensuring these technologies are developed in ways that are responsive to social needs, desires and concerns. And it comes at a time when brain research is beginning to open up radical new possibilities that were far beyond our grasp just a few years ago.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation uses a powerful and rapidly changing electrical current to excite neural processes in the brain, similar to direct stimulation with electrodes. Eric Wassermann, M.D., CC BY
In 2010, for instance, researchers at MIT demonstrated that Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS – a noninvasive neurotechnology – could temporarily alter someone’s moral judgment. Another noninvasive technique called transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) delivers low-level electrical currents to the brain via electrodes on the scalp; it’s being explored as a treatment for clinical conditions from depression to chronic pain – while already being used in consumer products and by do-it-yourselfers to allegedly self-induce changes in mental state and ability.
Crude as current capabilities using TMS and tDCS are, they are forcing people to think about the responsible development and use of technologies which have the ability to potentially change behavior, personality and thinking ability, at the flick of a switch. And the ethical questions they raise are far from straightforward.
For instance, should students be allowed to take exams while using tDCS? Should teachers be able to use tDCS in the classroom? Should TMS be used to prevent a soldier’s moral judgment from interfering with military operations?
These and similar questions grapple with what is already possible. Complex as they are, they pale against the challenges emerging neurotechnologies are likely to raise.
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