Elon Musk’s Neuralink outfit is working towards developing an easy to implant brain to computer interface that could do everything from healing brain injuries to greatly enhancing our perceptions, but the technology has also created an ethical and legal minefield.
Neuralink was founded by Mr Musk and others in 2016 and is working towards a system where a robot surgeon can implant a brain to computer interface as day surgery.
The company has been quite secretive since its inception, but on August 28 Mr Musk gave a demonstration of Neuralink technologies that was part recruitment ad (Neuralink has just 100 employees) and part product teaser.
Mr Musk showed off what he called called “the link,” a fifty-cent piece sized disk which compresses information flowing from the brain and wirelessly transmits the signals.
“In a lot of ways,” Mr Musk said, “It’s kind of like a Fitbit in your skull, with tiny wires.”
So far, the device has been implanted in pigs. The next step is to trial it on humans and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently granted a breakthrough therapy designation to Neuralink which allows the FDA to grant priority review to a drug or device if clinical trials show the therapy may offer substantial advantages over existing options for patients with serious or life-threatening diseases.
While the Neuralink technology potentially offers everything from human memory recording to thought control of external devices there are serious ethics and legal implications for the technology.
In a podcast produced by the Australian Society for Computers and Law, consumer protection and legal ethics expert Dr Michelle Sharpe spoke with Dr Allan McCay, a Sydney University Law School lecturer with particular interest in behavioural genetics, neuroscience, neurotechnology, and the criminal law about Mr Musk’s “Fitbit in your skull.”
“There immediately seems a sci-fi, Black Mirror speculation about what this technology could allow,” said Dr Sharpe.
Dr McCay said that while a brain to computer interface (BCI) could help disabled people control everything from a computer cursor to a wheelchair, there was also a dark side.
“Once you can do those things, presumably, you could also commit offenses with that kind of control,” said Dr McCay.
Also, while a BCI could have valuable therapeutic effects in treating everything from depression to Alzheimer’s disease, the increased stimulation to the brain from the BCI may have a downside.
“One of the problems that you’ve identified is over stimulation or under stimulation of the brain. So, we would have what the capacity to alter ourselves alter our personalities,” said Dr Sharpe.
Brain stimulation could address various aspects of a person’s mental condition that are undesirable to them and provide them a means of alteration other than something like cognitive behaviour therapy or medication.
“However, those kinds of alterations might go wrong or have unintended side effects, perhaps generating things like impulsivity or something that might lead to trouble,” he said.
“What does this mean for crime and for offenders who have strong, aggressive, violent impulses,” asked Dr Sharpe. “What does this technology mean for them, and what does it mean in the hands of the state?”
Dr McCay said there was already discussion of having a warning system alert a BCI-equipped person with violent tendencies that they were in danger of taking inappropriate action or that the BCI could counter violent impulses with a calming effect.
“Think of somebody like Begbie in the Scottish film Trainspotting, who had a terrible anger management problem. If he wanted to address this, he could get an automated system,” Dr McCay
“But there’s a concerning possibility of a serious diminution of autonomy. Quite concerning is the idea of it being imposed by the state in such a way that a person would almost cease to be a proper moral agent.”
Another murky area is the possibility of using a BCI to download our memories onto a computer.
“Elon Musk has said that these links will potentially, in the future, allow us to record and download our memories,” said Dr Sharpe.
“It made me think, is it is it possible that sitting in front of a computer that is interfaced with this link, is there scope for inadvertently downloading intimate memories and the distribution of them?”
Dr McCay believes the software controlling BCI functions such as memory downloads will have to be carefully written so people don’t easily get themselves into trouble.
“They have to be set up in such a way as the device doesn’t effect an action that the person doesn’t want to happen. But then you don’t want to make it too difficult so they will have to jump through all sorts of hoops before anything gets done.
“So there’s this kind of fine line between making it too easy and too hard to give effect to actions.”