This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Laura Cabrera, PhD
The search for a brain device capable of capturing recordings from thousands of neurons has been a primary goal of the government-sponsored BRAIN initiative. To succeed would require developing flexible materials for the electrodes, miniaturization of the electronics and fully wireless interaction. Yet this past summer, it was corporately funded Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink that stepped forward with announcements regarding their respective technological investment to access and read our human brains.
Elon Musk, the eccentric technology entrepreneur and CEO of Tesla and Space X, made a big announcement while at the California Academy of Sciences. This time it was not about commercial space travel or plans to revolutionize city driving. Instead Musk presented advances on a product under development at his company Neuralink. The product features a sophisticated neural implant which aims to record the activities of thousands of neurons in the brain, and write signals back into the brain to provide sensory feedback. Musk mentioned that this technology would be available to humans as early as next year.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is also funding brain research to develop a non-invasive wearable device that would allow people to type by simply imagining that they are talking. The company plans to demonstrate a prototype system by the end of the year.
These two corporate announcements raise important questions. Should we be concerned about the introduction of brain devices that have the capacity to read thousands of neurons and then send signals to our brains? The initial goal for both products is medical, to help paralyzed individuals use their thoughts to control a computer or smartphone, or in the case of Facebook to help those with disabling speech impairments. However, these products also are considered to be of interest to healthy individuals who might wish to “interact with today’s VR systems and tomorrow’s AR glasses.” Musk shared his vision to enable humans to “merge” with Artificial Intelligence (AI), enhancing them to reach superhuman intelligence levels.
Time will tell whether or not these grand visions, that currently veer into science fiction, will be matched by scientific progress. However, if they ultimately deliver on their promise, the products could change the lives of those affected by paralysis and other physical disabilities. Yet, if embraced by healthy individuals such technologies could radically transform what it means to be human. There are of course sound reasons to remain skeptical that they will be used. First off there are safety issues to be considered when implanting electrodes in the brain, including damage to the vasculature surrounding the implant as well as tissue response surrounding the device. And that is what is currently known about inserting brain-computer interfaces with only a couple of electrode channels. Consider what might happen with thousands of electrodes. There remain simply too many unknowns to endorse this intervention for human use in the next year or so. There also are salient issues regarding brain data collection, storage, and use, including concerns connected to privacy and ownership.
Beyond these concerns, we have to think about what happens when such developments are spearheaded by private companies. Privately funded development is at odds with the slow, careful approach to innovation that most medical developments rely upon, where human research subject regulations and safety measures are clear. It is the “move fast and break things” pace that energizes start-up companies and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The big swings at the heart of these entrepreneurial tech companies also bring considerable risks. When addressing sophisticated brain interfaces, the stakes are quite high. These products bring to mind scenarios from Black Mirror, a program that prompts a host of modern anxieties about technology. On one hand, the possibility of having a brain implant that allows hands-free device interaction seems exciting, but consider the level of information we then would be giving to these companies. It is one thing to track how individuals react to a social media post by clicking whether they “like” it or not, or by how many times it has been shared. It is another thing altogether to capture which parts of the brain are being activated without us having clicked anything. Can those companies be trusted with a direct window to our thoughts, especially when they have a questionable track record when it comes to transparency and accountability? Consider how long it took for Facebook to start addressing the use of customer’s personal information. It remains unclear just how much financial support Facebook is providing to its academic partners, or whether or not volunteers are aware of Facebook’s involvement in the funding-related research.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as academic partners to these enterprises may act as a moderating force on the tech industry, yet recent examples suggest that those kinds of checks and balances oftentimes fail. Thus, when we hear about developments by companies such as Facebook and Neuralink trying to access the thoughts in our brains, we need to hold on to a healthy skepticism and continue to pose important challenging questions.
Laura Cabrera, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Translational Neuroscience at Michigan State University.
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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Cabrera: Should we improve our memory with direct brain stimulation?; Can brain scans spot criminal intent?; Forgetting about fear: A neuroethics perspective