Consider the following scenario. A paralyzed person participates in a clinical trial of a brain-computer interface (BCI). A computer connected to a chip in his brain is trained to interpret neural activity resulting from mental rehearsal for an action.
The computer generates commands that move the robotic arm. One day, the man feels disappointed with the experimental team. Later, his robotic arm crushes a research assistant after taking a cup from it, injuring the assistant. Apologizing for what he says must be a device malfunction, he wonders whether his frustration with the team played a part.
This scenario is imaginary. But it does show some of the challenges towards which society is headed.
Current BCI techniques are primarily focused on therapeutic outcomes, such as helping people with spinal cord injury. This already enables users to perform relatively simple motor tasks – for example, moving a computer cursor or controlling a motorized wheelchair. In addition, researchers can already interpret a person’s neural activity from functional magnetic resonance imaging scans at an elementary level – that the person is thinking of a person rather than a car.
It may take years or even decades before BCI and other neurotechnologies become a part of our daily lives. But technological advances mean that we are on our way to a world in which it will be possible to decode people’s mental processes and directly manipulate the brain mechanisms underlying their intentions, emotions, and decisions; where individuals can communicate with others only by thinking; And where powerful computational systems directly connected to people’s brains assist in their interactions with the world so that their mental and physical abilities can be greatly enhanced.
Such advances could revolutionize the treatment of many conditions from brain injury and paralysis to epilepsy and schizophrenia, and change the human experience for the better. But technology can also exacerbate social inequalities and offer new ways for corporations, hackers, governments or anyone else to exploit and manipulate people. And it can profoundly alter some core human characteristics: private mental life, personal agency and understanding of individuals being tied to their bodies.
Now it is important to consider the possible effects
The Morningside group includes neuroscientists, neurotechnologists, physicians, ethicists and machine-intelligence engineers. This includes representatives from Google and Kernel (a neurotechnology start-up in Los Angeles, California); from international brain projects; and from academic and research institutions in the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel, China, Japan and Australia.
We gathered in May 2017 at a workshop sponsored by the US National Science Foundation at Columbia University, New York, to discuss neurotechnology and the ethics of machine intelligence.
We believe that existing ethics guidelines are insufficient for this scope2. These include the Declaration of Helsinki, a statement of ethical principles first established in 1964 for medical research involving human subjects (go.nature.com/2z262ag); A statement from the Belmont Report, 1979 prepared by the US National Commission for the Conservation of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (go.nature.com/2hrezmb); and the Asilomar Artificial Intelligence (AI) Warning Principles Statement, published earlier this year and signed by business leaders and AI researchers among others (go.nature.com/2ihnqac).
To address this shortcoming, we make recommendations regarding four areas of concern: confidentiality and consent; agency and identity; Growth; and prejudice. Different countries and people of different religions, races and socio-economic backgrounds will have different needs and perspectives. Thus, governments should create their own deliberative bodies to mediate open debate involving representatives from all sectors of society, and to determine how to translate these guidelines into policy, including specific laws and regulations .
Some of the world’s wealthiest investors are betting on the interplay between neuroscience and AI. More than a dozen companies around the world, including Kernel and Elon Musk’s start-up firm Neuralink, which launched this year, are investing in building devices that can ‘read’ human brain activity and analyze neural networks in the brain. Can ‘write’ information. We estimate that current spending on neurotechnology by the for-profit industry is already US$100 million per year, and is growing rapidly.
Investment from other sectors is also substantial. Since 2013, more than $500 million in federal funding has gone toward the development of neurotechnology under the US Brain Initiative alone.