How to keep ethical pace with the current “deep” transformations through neurotechnology?
The new field of neurotechnology is in the process of profoundly transforming global culture, as produced by globalization, into a “neuroculture”. It is modifying the human being as we know it into something else – into something “transhuman”, perhaps. It is thus also turning upside down our concepts of the individual and its desirable societies: of the social sphere, and of what “a good life” may be. What are the implications and consequences of this development? And what should we do?
As noted by the most recent report of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics of November 2011, neurotechnology is progressing globally and at a rapid pace. It will increasingly offer considerable capability to treat a number of neuro-psychiatric disorders – but at the same time also to affect human cognitions, emotions and behaviors, and to alter human thought and performance in the professional, social and even military spheres. From brain-machine-connections to super-soldiers, from steering a wheelchair with your thoughts to switching off the lights in a room 10,000 miles away just by concentrating on it, from replacing damaged brain tissue by “organic technology” insertions to piloting an attack drone connected to a human brain comfortably sitting in an office. All this is already possible and will be at the forefront of global civilizational developments within just a couple of years time.
As recent military research in the U.S., China and some NATO countries shows with equal impressiveness like the last Tokyo-based cyber-brain-technology exposition, unprecedented frontiers of a completely new level of human-machine interaction have already been opened up and are currently in full progression. Such possibilities have certainly a whiff of the science fictional. Yet, the Nuffield report did not warn of some futuristic vision, but rather presented the current extent and trajectory of neuroscientific and neurotechnological realities and potentials. The realities of understanding the brain and consciousness, and using advanced techniques and tools to use and manipulate thought and actions in human-machine interfaces stir up a brew of moral, ethical, legal and socially contentious issues. What is questioned with the potential transformation of the human being, its self-perception and, ultimately, its basic self-concept through neurotechnology is not merely a matter of technological ethics, but regards the whole tradition of European-Western humanism, enlightenment, rationality, individualism, free will, and therefore ultimately “human rights”, democracy and pluralism as such, and in their very roots. And it’s not so much a question of if this “deep” questioning will happen, but when…and perhaps, more appropriately, how soon, to what extent, and will we be ready for it when it does?
If neuroscience is to have any value as a human endeavor, then it’s not just what neuroscience informs and teaches. It’s about what we do with the knowledge we acquire. Neuroscience and its technologies are powerful tools. But like any tools, the responsibility to use them — and the knowledge and capabilities they bring — in the right ways rests in our hands.
Let’s not over-estimate their power either. There’s much we still do not know about the brain, consciousness, and how the biological, psychological and social domains interact. But with each step of innovation and discovery it is important to recognize that socio-economic and political agenda can affect, and may be affected by science and technology, and how the goods and services fostered by neurotechnology could be used or misused to influence the human condition, self-perception, cultures, and global balances of power.
We argue that this present constellation necessitates dedicated efforts – of both focus and fiscal support – of European leaders to address the ethico-legal and social issues that arise in and from neurotechnological research and its applications in medicine, public life and global security. Given the speed and extent of current neurotechnological trends, we argue that it’s folly not to critically assess what this science holds for the present, foolhardy not to recognize the promise – and perils – that such science and technology may incur, and frighteningly dangerous not to devote time and resources to studying, and developing ways to prudently guide each and every step ahead.
The democratic world is challenged in its very heart here with regard to both its traditions of “humanism” and “soft power”. Will it be up to face the huge, indeed unprecedented challenge ahead?
James Giordano, PhD, is 2011-2012 Fulbright Professor of Neurotechnology and Ethics at the Human Science Center of Ludwig Maximilians Universität, Munich, Germany, and Director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, VA, USA.
Roland Benedikter is European Foundation Professor of Multidisciplinary Political Sociology with specialization in Contextual Political Analysis and Contemporary Analysis in residence at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Long-term Visiting Scholar 2009-13, The Europe Center, Stanford University, USA.