Engineering the Brain: Ethical Issues and the Introduction of Neural Devices

Hastings Center Report 45 (6):26-35 (2015)


Neural engineering technologies such as implanted deep brain stimulators and brain-computer interfaces represent exciting and potentially transformative tools for improving human health and well-being. Yet their current use and future prospects raise a variety of ethical and philosophical concerns. Devices that alter brain function invite us to think deeply about a range of ethical concerns—identity, normality, authority, responsibility, privacy, and justice. If a device is stimulating my brain while I decide upon an action, am I still the author of the action? Does a device make the interiority of my experience accessible to others? Will the device change the way I think of myself and others think of me? Such fundamental questions arise even when a device is designed for only a relatively circumscribed purpose, such as restoring functioning via a smart prosthetic. We are part of a National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Center tasked with investigating philosophical and social implications of neural engineering research and technologies. Neural devices already in clinical use, such as deep brain stimulators for Parkinson's disease or essential tremor, have spurred healthy debate about such implications. Devices currently under development—such as the BrainGate System of implanted brain sensors coupled to robotics in persons with paralysis, exoskeletons for augmented movement, transcranial do-it-yourself stimulators, closed-loop brain stimulating systems, or even brain-to-brain interfacing—promise to extend and deepen these debates. At our center, brain-computer interfaces are the principal focus of work. Even acknowledging that the clinical translation of neural devices and seamless integration by end users may still largely reside in the future, the potential these devices hold calls for careful early analysis. The launching of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative in April 2013 provides further impetus for this work

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Author Profiles

Timothy Emmanuel Brown
University of Washington
Matthew Sample
Leibniz Universität Hannover

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