Do We Need An Ethical Framework For Neurotechnology?

Do We Need An Ethical Framework For Neurotechnology?

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By Hernaldo Turrillo

The neurotechnology industry has the potential to pose threats to human rights and fundamental freedoms, so the need for an ethical framework is crucial now. That is why the Executive Board of UNESCO has given its endorsement to the Director General's proposition to conduct a worldwide dialogue aimed at establishing this ethical framework for the rapidly expanding and largely unregulated industry. The inaugural international conference will take place at UNESCO Headquarters on July 13, 2023.

Do We Need An Ethical Framework For Neurotechnology?

Neurotechnology refers to the field of technology and scientific advancements that involve the study and manipulation of the nervous system, particularly the brain. It encompasses various disciplines such as neuroscience, computer science, engineering, and medicine, all focused on understanding, interacting with, or enhancing the capabilities of the brain and nervous system.

Neurotechnology includes a wide range of techniques, devices, and applications that aim to interface with the brain, decipher its workings, and utilize that knowledge for various purposes. Some examples of neurotechnology include brain imaging techniques (e.g., MRI, EEG), brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), deep brain stimulation (DBS), neuroprosthetics, neurofeedback, neurostimulation, cognitive enhancement technologies, and neuromodulation techniques.

Neurotechnology holds great potential for advancing our understanding of the brain, diagnosing and treating neurological disorders, restoring lost sensory or motor functions, and even augmenting cognitive abilities.

However, due to its rapid development and potential ethical implications, discussions and frameworks around the ethical use of neurotechnology are crucial to ensure responsible and beneficial applications while protecting individual rights and privacy.

Currently, 50% of Neurotech Companies are in the US, and 35% are in Europe and the UK. Because neurotechnology could usher in a new generation of 'super-humans', this would further widen the education, skills, wealth and opportunities gap within and between countries, giving those with the most advanced technology an unfair advantage.

“Neurotechnology could help solve many health issues, but it could also access and manipulate people’s brains, and produce information about our identities, and our emotions. It could threaten our rights to human dignity, freedom of thought and privacy. There is an urgent need to establish a common ethical framework at the international level, as UNESCO has done for artificial intelligence,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

On July 13th, UNESCO will host an international conference to delve into the vast potential of neurotechnology in tackling neurological issues and mental disorders. Simultaneously, the event aims to identify necessary measures to address the potential threats it poses to human rights and fundamental freedoms. The dialogue will bring together high-ranking officials, policymakers, civil society organizations, academics, and representatives from the private sector, representing diverse regions worldwide.

Establishing an Ethical Framework for Neurotechnology on a Global Scale

To lay the groundwork for a global ethical framework, the dialogue will draw insights from a report by UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee (IBC) on "Ethical Issues of Neurotechnology." Additionally, a UNESCO study will provide pioneering evidence on the neurotechnology landscape, innovations, key players worldwide, and significant trends.

The overarching objective of the dialogue is to foster a comprehensive understanding of the ethical concerns surrounding the governance of neurotechnology. This understanding will inform the development of an ethical framework to be endorsed by UNESCO's 193 member states, akin to the global ethical frameworks established by UNESCO for the human genome (1997), human genetic data (2003), and artificial intelligence (2021).

Given the recent advancements in Generative AI, the prevalence of AI technologies, and the associated risks to individuals, democracies, and employment, UNESCO's global standard on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence has proven to be particularly impactful and timely. The convergence of neural data and artificial intelligence presents unique challenges, as acknowledged in UNESCO's existing AI standard.

The Risks And Opportunities of Neurotechnology

Neurotechnology encompasses a wide array of devices and procedures designed to access, monitor, investigate, assess, manipulate, and emulate neural systems' structure and function. These range from wearable devices to non-invasive brain-computer interfaces like robotic limbs, as well as developing brain implants aimed at treating disabilities such as paralysis.

The prevalence of mental and neurological disorders affects one in eight individuals worldwide, leading to substantial care-related costs that make up a significant portion of healthcare expenses in developed nations. These burdens are also on the rise in low- and middle-income countries. As the global population aged over 60 is projected to double by 2050, reaching 2.1 billion, these expenses are expected to increase (WHO, 2022). Neurotechnology holds tremendous potential to reduce deaths and disabilities resulting from neurological disorders like epilepsy, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and stroke.

However, the utilization of neurotechnology without ethical safeguards can pose serious risks. The access and manipulation of brain information threaten fundamental rights and freedoms, including the core aspects of human identity, freedom of thought, privacy, and memory. UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee (IBC), in its 2021 report, highlights these risks and proposes concrete measures to address them.

Neural data, which captures individuals' reactions and basic emotions, is in high demand in consumer markets. Unlike the data collected by social media platforms, most neural data is generated unconsciously, making it impossible for individuals to provide consent for its use. If sensitive data is extracted and falls into the wrong hands, it can lead to detrimental consequences for the individual.

The implementation of Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) during a child or teenager's neurodevelopmental stage may disrupt the normal maturation process of the brain, potentially shaping their future identity with long-lasting, and perhaps permanent, effects.

Memory modification techniques (MMT) have the potential to alter the content of memories, reconstructing past events. While current MMT relies on drug usage, future advancements could involve brain implants. While these practices may have beneficial applications for traumatized individuals, they also carry the risk of distorting an individual's sense of personal identity.

As the field of neurotechnology continues to advance, it is crucial to address these ethical concerns and establish appropriate safeguards to ensure the responsible and beneficial use of these technologies while safeguarding individual rights, privacy, and autonomy.

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