Brain Rights

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Article from Issue 249/2021
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The NeuroRights Initiative has been in the news recently, and it seems like a good time for a shout out and a sincere thanks for their work.

Dear Reader,

The NeuroRights Initiative has been in the news recently, and it seems like a good time for a shout out and a sincere thanks for their work. The initiative, which is hosted at Columbia University and headed by Columbia Neuroscience Professor Rafael Yuste, is a collection of scientists with the mission to raise awareness about human rights issues that could arise from the evolution of technologies targeting the human brain.

According to the NeuroRights Initiative website, "Neurotechnology, especially when paired with artificial intelligence, has the potential to foundationally alter society. In the coming years, it will be possible to decode thought from neural activity or enhance cognitive ability by linking the brain directly to digital networks. Such innovations could challenge the very notion of what it means to be human." [1]

Scientists have already used brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) to transcribe human thoughts, plant artificial memories in mouse brains, and control the actions of laboratory animals. If used humanely, these technologies could have enormous potential to assist people with disabilities or help patients overcome post-traumatic stress. However, if these technologies go unregulated and become tools for government or commercial control, the results could be devastating.

One of the goals of the NeuroRights initiative is to add five basic neuro-rights to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was ratified by the UN in 1948. The five rights are:

  1. The right to identity, or the ability to control both one's physical and mental integrity;
  2. The right to agency, or the freedom of thought and free will to choose one's own actions;
  3. The right to mental privacy, or the ability to keep thoughts protected against disclosure;
  4. The right to fair access to mental augmentation, or the ability to ensure that the benefits of improvements to sensory and mental capacity through neurotechnology are distributed justly in the population;
  5. The right to protection from algorithmic bias, or the ability to ensure that technologies do not insert prejudices.

These five tenets seem quite reasonable and obvious to us in our early-21st-century comfort zone, but you can imagine how each of these rights could easily come under fire as the forces of money and power descend on the neuro space. It is particularly important to draw some boundaries now, before venture capitalists settle in, because the chance for meaningful legislation diminishes when big money, market forces, and paid lobbyists line up to oppose it.

This tech is still at a state where only the scientists understand it, so it helps when this kind of early warning comes from the scientists. Whether the warning is soon enough, only time will tell, but the clear and thoughtful voice of the NeuroRights Initiative gives me hope that scientists in other fields, such as biotech, nanotech, and AI will take a similar interest in laying the groundwork for humane use of their technology.

The NeuroRights Initiative and its partners are also interested in building a culture of ethical accountability for technologists by developing a Technocratic Oath, modeled on the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors, that will serve as "…an ethical framework for entrepreneurs, physicians, and researchers developing Neurotechnology and AI." [2]

Ultimately, though, the only way to protect ourselves from the dangers of neuro tech is through real laws passed at the national level by real governments with powers of enforcement and oversight. The need for clarity on this important issue is yet another reason why we need governments that actually communicate and cooperate to pass meaningful legislation, rather than just tap dancing at fundraisers and gesturing to their base.

It seems that now, more than ever, the future depends on the questions we are answering today.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

Infos

  1. NeuroRights Initiative: https://nri.ntc.columbia.edu/
  2. Technocratic Oath (Coming Soon): https://nri.ntc.columbia.edu/content/technocratic-oath-coming-soon

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