On November 23-24 we organized a workshop focused on the ethical and regulatory challenges that emerge from new neurotechnologies to 'read' and 'write' the brain.
Dr. DuraBernal at SUNY Downstate, together with colleagues doing research in International Law at the University of Milano-Bicocca, organized the "International Workshop on the risks and challenges of neurotechnologies for human rights” (Nov 23, 24), with the aim of looking into the potential impact of neurotechnologies on human rights and inform a new international legal framework.
The workshop consisted of short talks, Q&A and discussion among a panel of experts in neuroscience, neuroengineering, philosophy, ethics and law, including Chilean Senator Guido Girardi, who led efforts to become the first country to legislate ‘neurorights’; and Ms Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General, who manages the International Bioethics Committee.
The workshop was introduced by Prof. Mesgarani from Columbia University who develops neuroprosthetic devices to translate brain activity into speech (awarded Top-10 Breakthrough of the Year); and Nathan Copeland, the first human implanted with a cortical bidirectional brain-computer interface to move and receive sensation from a robotic arm.
This two-day online workshop took place on November 23 and 24, 2021 (10am - 2pm ET).
The recordings of the workshop are available on Youtube:
- Day 1: https://youtu.be/ALhkaKPuAZA
- Day 2: https://youtu.be/tqFn_MUK-4w
Session 1: Identifying the state of art of neurotechnology: risks and opportunities in the near future.
Prof. Mesgarani opened with an eye-opening overview of the far-reaching application of neurotechnologies in today’s world. These ranged from deep brain stimulation to eliminate Parkinson’s tremors to his own cutting-edge research decoding speech from the brain of people who are unable to talk. A vivid first-hand description of brain-computer interfaces was then provided by Mr. Copeland, who was left paraplegic after a car accident and then became the first person to control a robotic arm and recover touch sensation through a brain implant in the cortex. He described the neuroprosthetic as “very intuitive to control, [...] I don't have to strain, it really is just as easy as thinking move and grasp; so in that way, it is kind of an extension of myself, but I also see it as a tool that I'm controlling that is separate from myself”. In Prof. Fernandez Jover’s talk he detailed another fascinating example where he managed to partially restore vision of shapes and letters in a blind person. He, however, highlighted an overwhelming list of limitations of brain implants, for example, damaging the patient’s brain or the difficulty of decoding and interpreting neural signals -- these should also inform our decision of when and how to apply these technologies.
Prof. Farahany then transitioned the conversation towards the more ethical concerns, and perfectly illustrated the broadness of the problem and solutions being proposed. In particular, she argued “the time has come for us to recognize a right to cognitive liberty, as existing constitutional protections or international human rights protections are not sufficient or adequate, because they don't contemplate the world in which you, but also corporations and government, could truly access and alter your brain.” In the following intervention, Prof. Gasparini and her PhD student Ms. Saibene delivered an in-depth review of the physical, psychological and social factors affecting brain technologies and wearable devices, and emphasized the dangers posed by brain hacking to neurosecurity and the need for a multidisciplinary approach to the problem. Prof. Wolpaw then placed the spotlight on learning, and the paradigm shift that had occurred in the last years: “the whole brain is plastic and it changes all the time”; this has important implications for neurotechnologies as they “will induce changes in ways that cannot be predicted ahead of time.” Day 1 of the Workshop ended with a masterful talk by Prof. Andorno, questioning “whether we really need new rights in this area, or whether it is enough to appeal to the existing set of human rights.” He emphasized the risk of rights inflation, “the problematic tendency to label everything that is morally desirable as a human right, which is problematic because it devalues the notion of human rights.” Prof. Andorno concluded by reminding us that just formulating a right is not enough to deal with today’s challenges, but this needs to be completed with more concrete and immediate legal tools.”
Session 2: A critical examination of current and future regulatory proposals.
Following the opening remarks by UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences, Ms. Gabriela Ramos, Day 2 started with a detailed presentation of the process that turned Chile into the first country to reform its Constitution to be able to enact legislation to protect its citizens from the risks for human rights emerging from the general use of neurotechnologies. The Senator Guido Girardi, promoter of the legislation, argued that “the geopolitical battle of the 21st century will be fought to control the brain and its data, and for this reason, it is essential to protect them”.
Prof. Pia Acconci then presented the international response to this challenge by referring to the diverse soft-law instruments that international organizations have adopted to tackle the risks and challenges posed by neurotechnologies and connected instruments (AI) to human rights including the 2019 OECD Recommendation on Responsible Innovation in Neurotechnology, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly Report: “The brain-computer interface: new rights or new threats to fundamental freedoms?”, 2019 or the EU AI Act, 2021. From the perspective of the brain economy, Prof. Acconci also highlighted the positive potential of this technology to achieve some of the UN’s SDG (education, gender equality, mental health or post-covid recovery). Prof. Acconci concluded by presenting the advantages of international non-binding rules as the most effective way to frame a common global framework that can effectively tackle the risks while fostering the benefits of neurotechnology for the international community.
Prof. Silvia Salardi concentrated on exposing the ethical-legal challenges posed by human bioenhancement of healthy individuals through neurotechnologies. After distinguishing between pharmacological enhancement and neurotech enhancement, she analysed exhaustively from a philosophical perspective the elements that fall within cognitive enhancement (learning, memory and concentration, mood change and moral bioenhancement) and she referred to the guidelines offered to this respect by the Italian code of medical ethics. To end her presentation, Prof. Salardi gave the audience the elements to reflect on the way in which disclosure regulation, information overload and ineffective informed consent may represent a threat to the right to self-determination or autonomy in the scope of direct-to-consumer neurotech devices.
Artificial Intelligence expert Prof. Stefania Bandini then illustrated the ways in which AI may be applied to the brain data retrieved through neurotechnology and the implications this may have for human rights. She also carried out an insightful description of the EU Commission’s approach to AI including an examination of the Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI and the EU’s AI Act.
Prof. Philipp Kellmeyer further reflected on the potential impact of the convergence of big data and deep learning with neural networks. While highlighting the limits imposed by the current state of neuroscience, Prof. Kellmeyer calls for efforts to be directed towards the real ethical priorities for neurotechnologies and AI including issues emerging from hybrid agency and accountability gaps in human-AI interaction. He also stresses the urgent need to protect security and privacy of neuro and biodata that may be threatened by the general use of consumer neurotechnology. Prof. Kellmeyer, while agreeing with the last speaker, Prof. Arleen Salles, on the importance of guaranteeing a multistakeholder debate, considers that the time has arrived to turn this debate into binding and tangible laws and regulations.
Finally, Prof. Salles reflected on the role that societal deliberation on neurotechnology should play if an inclusive international framework is to be agreed upon. The Workshop thus ends raising awareness on the importance of democratic and transparent governance in this area with an invitation to reflect on the principles that should guide future research and policy-making in this scope: have we done a good job in being as inclusive as possible when addressing the issues raised by emerging neurotechnologies?