Developing Ethical Priorities for Neurotechnologies and AI

Private companies and military sectors have moved beyond the goal of merely understanding the brain to that of augmenting and manipulating brain function. In particular, companies such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink and Bryan Johnson’s Kernel are hoping to harness advances in computing and artificial intelligence alongside neuroscience to provide new ways to merge our brains with computers.

Musk also sees this as a means to help address both AI safety and human relevance as algorithms outperform humans in one area after another. He has previously stated, “Some high bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem.”

In a comment in Nature, 27 people from The Morningside Group outlined four ethical priorities for the emerging space of neurotechnologies and artificial intelligence. The authors include neuroscientists, ethicists and AI engineers from Google, top US and global Universities, and several non-profit research organizations such as AI Now and The Hastings Center.

A Newsweek article describes their concern, “Artificial intelligence could hijack brain-computer interfaces and take control of our minds.” While this is not exactly the warning the Group describes, they do suggest we are in store for some drastic changes:

…we are on a path 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 could communicate with others simply by thinking; and where powerful computational systems linked directly to people’s brains aid their interactions with the world such that their mental and physical abilities are greatly enhanced.

The authors suggest that although these advances could provide meaningful and beneficial enhancements to the human experience, they could also exacerbate social inequalities, enable more invasive forms of social manipulation, and threaten core fundamentals of what it means to be human. They encourage readers to consider the ramifications of these emerging technologies now.

Referencing the Asilomar AI Principles and other ethical guidelines as a starting point, they call for a new set of guidelines that specifically address concerns that will emerge as groups like Elon Musk’s startup Neuralink and other companies around the world explore ways to improve the interface between brains and machines. Their recommendations cover four key areas: privacy and consent; agency and identity; augmentation; and bias.

Regarding privacy and consent, they posit that the right to keep neural data private is critical. To this end, they recommend opt-in policies, strict regulation of commercial entities, and the use of blockchain-based techniques to provide transparent control over the use of data. In relation to agency and identity, they recommend that bodily and mental integrity, as well as the ability to choose our actions, be enshrined in international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the area of augmentation, the authors discuss the possibility of an augmentation arms race of soldiers in the pursuit of so-called “super-soldiers” that are more resilient to combat conditions. They recommend that the use of neural technology for military purposes be stringently regulated. And finally, they recommend the exploration of countermeasures, as well as diversity in the design process, in order to prevent widespread bias in machine learning applications.

The ways in which AI will increasingly connect with our bodies and brains pose challenging safety and ethical concerns that will require input from a vast array of people. As Dr. Rafael Yuste of Columbia University, a neuroscientist who co-authored the essay, told STAT, “the ethical thinking has been insufficient. Science is advancing to the point where suddenly you can do things you never would have thought possible.”