The Ethics of Brain Implants

Brain implants are such a risky technology that we should consider banning them before they get released. If not, we risk losing a freedom we take for granted every day, our freedom of thought.

On August 28, Neuralink, a company founded by Elon Musk, revealed a working prototype of a brain implant in a demonstration pig.

At the press conference, Musk called the implant “a fitbit for your skull”.

Brain implants, or brain-machine interfaces as they are commonly known, are devices that attempt to connect the brain with computers to restore brain function or to extend brain functionality.

Typically, brain implants have been sold as solutions to various medical conditions. Musk talks of using the device to help those with brain injuries or congenital defects. A similar product, developed by Facebook in collaboration with researchers in Southern California, aims to read individual words people are thinking. This may help the disabled to interact with their environment without having to speak or move.

As with all dystopian technologies, the initial use case scenarios sound fantastic. The problem lies in the technology being extended to more general applications.

Asked if his brain implants would ever be used for video games, for example, Musk replied: “Yeah, probably.” In the case of Facebook, the idea that they are developing brain implants just for the disabled community is hard to believe. Facebook is not a disability services company. It is a communication and advertising company. The idea that it won’t use a new technology, such as brain implants, for communication and advertising purposes is bordering on the naive.

Consider what it means to have essentially mind reading technology in the hands of advertising executives. Or video game developers, for that matter. The current level of psychological prompting, addiction mechanics and data collection used to influence our decisions, will look like child’s play compared to a future of widespread brain implant usage.

In 2019, Shoshana Zuboff released her seminal book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. In it, she tracks the development of the big tech companies and their use of surveillance style techniques. The core idea is simple. The big tech companies collect our data to analyze our past behavior, predict our future behavior and thereby control our future behavior.

Currently, these companies are limited in collecting only our external actions. What happens however, when they gain access to our internal thoughts?

In the 1998 film, The Truman Show (starring Jim Carrey), Truman Burbank lives in a world he believes is real. In reality (spoilers), everyone in the world is an actor in a reality TV show, all of the physical surroundings are the set and Truman is the unknowing star of the show.

At the end of the film, Truman yells at the God-like producers in the sky. He tells them that they had cameras everywhere, they controlled all aspects of his life but he had control of one thing. “You were never inside my head.”

Truman believes his thoughts were the only thing that were truly his own. To the end, he insists he was free, despite living in a TV show, because he still had freedom of thought.

The Truman Show could have a darker ending. Truman could yell at the sky the same quote. To which the Neuralink or Facebook executives would reply: “We were in your head the whole time.”

To be serious for a moment, brain implant technology is dangerous. It is dangerous because it risks free thought. It is dangerous because it risks free expression. And at its core, it is dangerous because it risks free will. There is a level of psychological manipulation that is too powerful to be legal, and reading and altering our thoughts is above that level.

With most technologies, the law takes ten years to catch up after its release into the world. Facebook came to prominence in 2007 and only now, laws are seriously being considered to curtail its negative attributes.

Brain implants are too dangerous to wait ten years. If we want to keep our society safe we need to proactively pass laws either banning their use or significantly limiting their application. This is not a technology we can think our way out of. It is a technology that may take away our ability to think for ourselves altogether.

Follow me on Twitter : @Joshkrook

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