. . . And le­gal and eth­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions to con­sider

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Neu­ro­science is on the verge of trans­form­ing so­ci­ety. The field has ma­tured over the past 15 years from cre­at­ing vast “stamp col­lec­tions” of data without a uni­fy­ing the­ory to the po­ten­tial in the next sev­eral years to pro­vide us with an un­der­stand­ing of how the hu­man mind emerges from the col­lec­tive ac­tiv­ity of 100 bil­lion nerve cells.

The neu­ro­sci­en­tists who un­cover this mys­tery will trans­form our so­ci­ety much in the way Al­bert Ein­stein did when he dis­cov­ered the gen­eral the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity. This break­through would, in com­bi­na­tion with the revo­lu­tion in neu­rotech­nolo­gies on­go­ing now, present us with a host of re­mark­able op­por­tu­ni­ties but at the same time cre­ate a slew of eth­i­cal and le­gal sticky wick­ets. Much as Ein­stein’s dis­cov­er­ies brought about many ben­e­fits, they were also re­spon­si­ble, at least in­di­rectly, for the cre­ation of nu­clear weapons.

What eth­i­cal ques­tions will we need to con­front as we move closer to un­cov­er­ing the mys­ter­ies of our minds?

Cur­rent work on the so-called “brain-ma­chine in­ter­face” are al­low­ing ad­vances that may un­lock the keys to the hu­man brain’s own neu­ral code. New pros­thet­ics are be­ing de­vel­oped that will en­able vic­tims of trau­matic in­jury to com­mu­ni­cate with loved ones and care­givers us­ing pure men­tal thought as a re­place­ment for writ­ing or the spo­ken word.

While th­ese pros­thet­ics are un­con­tro­ver­sial when used to heal, what about when they are de­ployed in­stead to aug­ment the healthy mind? Imag­ine, the abil­ity to pur­chase an im­plantable chip that would en­hance your sense of sight or smell, or even your in­tel­li­gence. This aug­mented brain en­hance­ment tech­nol­ogy dif­fers only from the med­i­cal pros­thetic in its end pur­pose.

As im­por­tantly, dis­eases that dam­age and de­stroy the “mind” such as Alzheimer’s or schizophre­nia may first yield to treat­ment with new in­di­vid­u­ally tar­geted brain drugs and re­place­ment cells even­tu­ally lead­ing to cures.

Imag­ine an Amer­ica where the cur­rent cruel and un­usual death sen­tence that comes with a di­ag­no­sis of Alzheimer’s dis­ease is ame­lio­rated so that, with chronic drug treat­ments, the pa­tient might main­tain their mem­o­ries.

In this case, such treat­ments and cures come with the costs in­her­ent in their de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion. How are we as a so­ci­ety to al­lo­cate such po­ten­tially ex­pen­sive but life­sav­ing neu­rotech­nolo­gies?

At the same time, we may soon be con­struct­ing ma­chines that will be hy­brids: both su­per­pow­er­ful dig­i­tal com­put­ers, but also re­verse-en­gi­neered brains, com­bin­ing the ad­van­tages of both the abil­ity to con­duct bil­lions of bor­ing “men­tal” op­er­a­tions at light­ning-speed and hu­man­like abil­i­ties to de­ceive, cre­ate and en­gage some­thing sim­i­lar to our emo­tions.

Would such ma­chines be con­scious? A new Ein­stein might tell us yea or nay, but for all in­tents and pur­poses, such ma­chines (ro­bots) would ap­pear to us as con­scious and at least as ca­pa­ble as hu­mans in many ar­eas. What rights would we give to such ma­chines (if any)? What rights might they give to us if things got out of hand? How might we keep things from get­ting out of hand?

Our chal­lenge is that we don’t pay enough at­ten­tion to such game-chang­ing dis­cov­er­ies as they are hap­pen­ing. And when we don’t pay at­ten­tion, then the so­ci­etal con­ver­sa­tions that need to hap­pen to reach con­sen­sus on pol­icy also don’t hap­pen — at least in a proac­tive fash­ion. We end up re­act­ing in­stead.

In the case of the un­cov­er­ing the se­crets of the hu­man mind, such proac­tive con­sid­er­a­tion would be bet­ter off ear­lier than later.

The time has come for in­ter­ested stake­hold­ers (which would be all of us) to come to­gether — in town halls across the coun­try, in uni­ver­si­ties, in Sil­i­con Val­ley and in Congress — to hold the so­ci­etal give-and-take that can guide us through this new “turn­ing of the sci­en­tific page.”

One such “con­ver­sa­tion” that has al­ready be­gun is the Na­tional Decade of the Mind Project. The project rep­re­sents a unique op­por­tu­nity to chart our course. Work­ing with de­ci­sion­mak­ers in Congress, across fed­eral agen­cies and all over the world, sci­en­tists are en­gag­ing with their fel­low cit­i­zens to pre­pare the way for the fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­ni­ties that will emerge from un­der­stand­ing the hu­man mind, as well as avoid­ing pot­holes of this new road, less trav­eled.

As a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, I urge Amer­i­cans to em­brace the neu­ro­science revo­lu­tion but soberly dis­cuss the eth­i­cal and le­gal im­pli­ca­tions of what th­ese changes might mean. We can do this by urg­ing Congress and the new ad­min­is­tra­tion to en­dorse the Na­tional Decade of the Mind Project and the con­comi­tant in­vest­ment into a health­ier and more pros­per­ous na­tion.

James Olds is the di­rec­tor of the Kras­now In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study at Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.