A recent article in Science News raises serious concerns about new developments in brain research. You can read the entire article here but allow me to summarise some of the key points. The field of neuroscience is one of the most important biological sciences of our time and the advances in recent years have been staggering. Scientists have found that by inserting probes into the brains of humans and eavesdropping on the synaptic signals, they can actually interpret the neural chatter well enough to allow people to use computers to shop online and use prosthetic arms with nothing but their minds. The technology obviously offers great opportunities for people with disabilities and so we would want to encourage this research. But along with the opportunities for great good come some ethical and privacy concerns.
What we are really talking about is the ability to read a person’s mind. We might read a signal and convert it into a machine movement, or we might read a signal and convert it into text on a screen or checkmarks in an online shopping cart. Columbia University gave a demonstration of technology in which a man was able to respond to a question and deliver a text message using only his mind. If we can listen in to the brain in this fashion, what else might be possible? The Neuralink company (another of Elon Musk’s entrepreneurial endeavours) envisions a day when we all might have a neural mesh wired in under our skulls to listen in on our brains. The use might be as simple as being able to call your car (a Tesla of course) from the parking garage simply by thinking about it or to allow us to think about a Google search and have the information appear in our brains.
This linkage of mind and computer has some questioning how far this might go. Do we really want our brains to be connected to our computers? What if someone were able to hack into our brains and listen to our private thoughts? Could the direction of influence flow both ways? Might our minds be bombarded with advertisements much like our social media feeds of today? Could a government use such technology to provide us with blissful thoughts when we acted in certain ways? Of course, such technology and their uses are far beyond today’s capabilities, but we need only to look at how quickly some of our other technology has advanced to realize that these are legitimate concerns. How might we regulate the advances of brain/computer technology when the advantages and conveniences offer such a powerful incentive and emotional attraction? A quote on the front page of NeuraLink’s webpage makes it clear that there are tremendous possibilities and huge commercial gains to be made in this type of research:
“Every day we’re building better tools for communicating with the brain. With the right team, the applications for this technology are limitless.”
The Science News article pointed out a number of ethical questions and asked people for their concerns and feedback. The author also offers a link to a major neuroethics paper that attempts to suggest ways in which researchers might be responsible in their ethical choices. It will be important for all of us to consider the developments of such technology in the years to come. As some have pointed out, the internet, our smartphones, and social media were largely developed without much consideration for their effects upon our world. Not all of those influences have been positive. Have we learned from the past and can we avoid making similar mistakes in our neural technology future?
 “Can privacy coexist with technology that reads and changes brain activity?: Ethicists, scientists and our readers consider the ethics of brain technology”, Science News February 11, 2021, https://www.sciencenews.org/article/technology-brain-activity-read-change-thoughts-privacy-ethics