Gordon Unzen, MJLST Staffer
Brain control and mindreading are no longer ideas confined to the realm of science fiction—such possibilities are now the focus of science in the field of neurotechnology. At the forefront of the neurotechnology revolution is Neuralink, a medical device company owned by Elon Musk. Musk envisions that his device will allow communication with a computer via the brain, restore mobility to the paralyzed and sight to the blind, create mechanisms by which memories can be saved and replayed, give rise to abilities like telepathy, and even transform humans into cyborgs to combat sentient artificial intelligence (AI) machines.
Both theoretical and current applications of brain-interfacing devices, however, raise concerns about infringements upon privacy and freedom of thought, with the technology providing intimate information ripe for exploitation by governments and private companies. Now is the time to consider how to address the ethical issues raised by neurotechnology so that people may responsibly enjoy its benefits.
What is Neurotechnology?
Neurotechnology describes the use of technology to understand the brain and its processes, with goals to control, repair, or improve brain functioning. Neurotechnology research uses techniques that record brain activity such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and that stimulate the brain such as transcranial electrical stimulation (tES). Both research practices and neurotechnological devices can be categorized as invasive, wherein electrodes are surgically implanted in the brain, or non-invasive, which do not require surgery. Neurotechnology research is still in its infancy but development rates will likely continue accelerating with the use of increasingly advanced AI to help make sense of the data.
Work in neurotechnology has already led to the proliferation of applications impacting fields from medicine to policing. Bioresorbable electronic medication speeds up nerve regeneration, deep brain stimulators function as brain pacemakers targeting symptoms of diseases like Parkinson’s, and neurofeedback visualizes brain activity for the real-time treatment of mental illnesses like depression. Recently, a neurotechnological device that stimulates the spinal cord allowed a stroke patient to regain control of her arm. Electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets are used by gamers as a video game controller and by transportation services to track when a truck driver is losing focus. In China, the government uses caps to scan employees’ brainwaves for signs of anxiety, rage, or fatigue. “Brain-fingerprinting” technology, which analyzes whether a subject recognizes a given stimulus, has been used by India’s police since 2003 to ‘interrogate’ a suspect’s brain, although there are questions regarding the scientific validity of the practice.
Current research enterprises in neurotechnology aim to push the possibilities much further. Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta financed invasive neurotechnology research using an algorithm that decoded subject’s answers to simple questions from brain activity with a 61% accuracy. The long-term goal is to allow everyone to control their digital devices through thought alone. Musk similarly aims to begin human trials for Neuralink devices designed to help paralyzed individuals communicate without the need for typing, and he hopes this work will eventually allow Neuralink to fully restore their mobility. However, Musk has hit a roadblock in failing to acquire FDA approval for human-testing, despite claiming that Neuralink devices are safe enough that he would consider using them on his children. Others expect that neurofeedback will eventually see mainstream deployment through devices akin to a fitness tracker, allowing people to constantly monitor their brain health metrics.
Ethical Concerns and Neurorights
Despite the possible medical and societal benefits of neurotechnology, it would be dangerous to ignore the ethical red flags raised by devices that can observe and impose on brain functioning. In a world of increasing surveillance, the last bastion of privacy and freedom exists in the brain. This sanctuary is lost when even the brain is subject to data collection practices. Neurotechnology may expose people to dystopian thought policing and hijacking, but more subtly, could lead to widespread adverse psychological consequences as people live in constant fear of their thoughts being made public.
Particularly worrisome is how current government and business practices inform the likely near-future use of data collected by neurotechnology. In law enforcement contexts such as interrogations, neurotechnology could allow the government to cause people to self-incriminate in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Private companies that collect brain data may be required to turn it over to governments, analogous to the use of Fitbit data as evidence in court. If the data do not go to the government, companies may instead sell them to advertisers. Even positive implementations can be taken too far. EEG headsets that allow companies to track the brain activity of transportation employees may be socially desirable, but the widespread monitoring of all employees for productivity is a plausible and sinister next step.
In light of these concerns, ethicist and lawyer Nita Farahany argues for updating human rights law to protect cognitive privacy and liberty. Farahany describes a right of self-determination regarding neurotechnology to secure freedom from interference, to access the technology if desired, and to change one’s own brain by choice. This libertarian perspective acknowledges the benefits of neurotechnology for which many may be willing to sacrifice privacy, while also ensuring that people have an opportunity to say no its imposition. Others take a more paternalistic approach, questioning whether further regulation is needed to limit possible neurotechnology applications. Sigal Samuel notes that cognitive-enhancing tools may create competition that requires people to either use the technology or get left behind. Decisions to engage with neurotechnology thus will not be made with the freedom Farahany imagines.
Neurotechnology holds great promise for augmenting the human experience. The technology will likely play an increasingly significant role in treating physical disabilities and mental illnesses. In the near future, we will see the continued integration of thought as a method to control technology. We may also gain access to devices offering new cognitive abilities from better memory to telepathy. However, using this technology will require people to give up extremely private information about their brain functions to governments and companies. Regulation, whether it takes the form of a revamped notion of human rights or paternalistic lawmaking limiting the technology, is required to navigate the ethical issues raised by neurotechnology. Now is the time to act to protect privacy and liberty.
 Rachel Levy & Marisa Taylor, U.S. Regulators Rejected Elon Musk’s Bid to Test Brain Chips in Humans, Citing Safety Risks, Reuters (Mar. 2, 2023), https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/neuralink-musk-fda/.
 Sigal Samuel, Your Brain May Not be Private Much Longer, Vox (Mar. 17, 2023), https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2023/3/17/23638325/neurotechnology-ethics-neurofeedback-brain-stimulation-nita-farahany.
 Neurotechnology, How to Reveal the Secrets of the Human Brain?, Iberdrola,https://www.iberdrola.com/innovation/neurotechnology#:~:text=Neurotechnology%20uses%20different%20techniques%20to,implantation%20of%20electrodes%20through%20surgery(last accessed Mar. 19, 2023).
 Margaretta Colangelo, how AI is Advancing NeuroTech, Forbes (Feb. 12, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/cognitiveworld/2020/02/12/how-ai-is-advancing-neurotech/?sh=277472010ab5.
 Advances in Neurotechnology Poised to Impact Life and Health Insurance, RGA (July 19, 2022), https://www.rgare.com/knowledge-center/media/research/advances-in-neurotechnology-poised-to-impact-life-and-health-insurance.
 Stroke Patient Regains Arm Control After Nine Years Using New Neurotechnology, WioNews (Feb. 22, 2023), https://www.wionews.com/trending/stroke-patients-can-regain-arm-control-using-new-neurotechnology-says-research-564285.
 Camilla Cavendish, Humanity is Sleepwalking into a Neurotech Disaster, Financial Times (Mar. 3, 2023), https://www.ft.com/content/e30d7c75-90a3-4980-ac71-61520504753b.
 Samuel, supra note 2.
 Sigal Samuel, Facebook is Building Tech to Read your Mind. The Ethical Implications are Staggering, Vox (Aug. 5, 2019), https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/8/5/20750259/facebook-ai-mind-reading-brain-computer-interface.
 Levy & Taylor, supra note 1.
 Manuela López Restrepo, Neurotech Could Connect Our Brains to Computers. What Could Go Wrong, Right?, NPR (Mar. 14, 2023), https://www.npr.org/2023/03/14/1163494707/neurotechnology-privacy-data-tracking-nita-farahany-battle-for-brain-book.
 Vanessa Bates Ramirez, Could Brain-Computer Interfaces Lead to ‘Mind Control for Good’?, Singularity Hub (Mar. 16, 2023), https://singularityhub.com/2023/03/16/mind-control-for-good-the-future-of-brain-computer-interfaces/.
 Restrepo, supra note 16.
 Samuel, supra note 12.
 Samuel, supra note 2.