Harnessing the power of our brains
By Matt James
It seems that Martin Caidin’s US TV series, Six Million Dollar Man has never been too far from the media spotlight over the last couple of weeks. A form of techno–James Bond, the series follows a former astronaut with bionic implants working for the US Office of Scientific Intelligence. Using these bionic enhancements he is able to run at speeds of 60 mph (97 km/h), and his eye has a 20:1 zoom lens and infrared capabilities. This fictitious example has proved a useful metaphor to illustrate the kind of advances the field of neuroscience is beginning to offer us in reality. Within the last couple of months the Royal Society published a report on its ‘Brain Waves Project’ which helps to profile and considers the various directions the advances in the field could take us in terms of enhancing human capabilities.
Plug in your brain
Research may still be in its formative stages but it is certainly helping us to understand to a greater extent how the brain operates and in turn how many brain diseases and damage could be treated in the future. The Royal Society’s report makes particular note of brain machine interfaces (or BMIs) which help to connect up an individual’s brain to machinery. For some years now early forms of this technology has been in existence helping to provide therapies for amputees to control limbs, cochlear implants providing sensory input to the human nervous system and neural stimulators for stroke victims and epilepsy sufferers. Yet as our understanding of the brain increases, so has the technology. The BMI may well emerge as one of the defining forms of technology of this century with scope to make us smarter or more connected. Just think about the impact of a Google implant or an implant which made helped to take instant messaging to a whole new dimension based simply upon thought. You may think this far fetched but for iPhone users there is already an app which can be downloaded which, when used alongside a headset, allows you to control your iPhone simply through thought. Then there is the next phase of the Wii games console where brainwaves are used to control video games and neuro–marketing which aims to produce adverts by monitoring MRI scans and determining what stimulates and generates the deepest response from the viewer’s brain. Put simply, the brain represents big business.
As with many issues surrounding human enhancement it is the military which tends to be the test area for much of the technology. Whilst is goes beyond this short opinion piece to explore this fact in more detail, suffice it to say that whilst many may talk along the lines of maximising the human experience, the desire to gain the competitive edge over one’s enemy, effectively driving up performance by degrading the performance of another is still a premise which drives many of the advances.
One of the keys issues raised by the Royal Society’s report is the ability to plug in soldiers to their weapons systems allowing them to control them through their minds. One of the implications which arise from this is what happens in the case of a military drone which is controlled by a soldier fitted with BMI but happens to bomb the wrong target. Who is to blame – is it you or your BMI? This is a valid question to ask and in many respects is the same kind of question which is posed when discussing advances in autonomous system and artificial intelligence (AI). The law currently makes a distinction between human operators and technical systems and requires a human to be responsible for an autonomous system. How would the situation change should these technologies enhance or extend human capabilities to compensate for impairment to cognition or motor functioning? Would humans be responsible for their autonomous system or are the two separate?
As we consider these sets of questions it is all too easy to perhaps view the current environment in which we live as being the best with no scope for improvement. For example, in the case of neuropharmalogical agents or ‘smart drugs’ pertinent sets of questions arise as to how they could help the solider or fighter pilot improve their concentration. Equally, they could also improve the concentration of the domestic transatlantic pilot which in turn helps to improve safety civilian passengers.
The issue of memory manipulation is also another area which poses ethical dilemmas when we consider the potential use of drugs which can wipe, dampen or erase certain memories. To a great extent moulding and reshaping identity is something that we already do. Just stop and think of those we aspire to be like, to emulate, and to learn from as they bravely overcome trials, failures and disappointments to become a better person. Surely this very act points to a form of identity reshaping? However true this may be though, does it not point to something deeper; something more than memory editing? Is it not through the process of overcoming the obstacle – whatever that may be – that the person’s identity is changed and not just a ‘Photoshop’ style edit?
Moreover, certain memories of the past help to explicitly and implicitly shape and form our response to similar situation we face in the future. If memories became something we edit and remove could we rob ourselves of valuable opportunities from which we learn how to react in the future? Rather like having a library from which books are removed and never replaced, our reference material would be greatly diminished.
The human body: the human hard drive
How we view and consider the human body helps to shape and frame our understanding and application of these technologies, something which can be traced all the way to the ancient Greeks. They understood the universe to be made up of four basic elements of earth, fire, wind and water, which also helped to constitute the human body. Thus whenever someone fell ill it was due to some form of imbalance of these elements. If someone was experiencing a soaring temperature it was down to the person having too much fire. A fierce case of dropsy the person had too much water and so on. In the Victorian era, human understanding of hydraulics developed and so the workings of the human body were understood in a similar fashion. The human body was believed to be based on a system of hydraulics, with capillaries, circulatory systems and lymphatics. Today, with our growing understanding of information and data processing, computational power and code, it is no surprise we find ourselves in a similar place of understanding the body as a complex computational machine, made up of code or DNA. Whilst this is not wrong in and of itself, taking this perspective as the only perspective can lead to difficulties, not least in terms of neuroscience and memory manipulation and control. We may be able to analyse and understand the data and the processes which lead to that data but we need to consider other perspectives in order to differentiate between a wish, intention or action.
What’s the answer? A brave new world, Big Brother State or neither?
So, are all these neuroscience applications good, bad, inevitable, to be avoided at all cost? I just don’t think we know. But what we can be certain of is the profound impact and importance they represent. This partly comes down to an issue of engagement. It is perhaps easy for those in military circles to wax lyrical about the future solider plugging into their weapon systems and controlling them through their minds but how do those same advances affect the lives of everyday people. That level of questioning and thought has not really begun but which reports such as the one produced by The Royal Society may well help to start a conversation, particularly in terms of long term policy considerations. How could BMIs impact upon business, security, education and freedom for privacy?
I recently came across a sobering quote from a letter written by Aldous Huxley to George Orwell. As many will know Huxley wrote the novel Brave New World which depicts a society of designer humans who eat “soma” so they keep feeling happy. The Big Brother state and dystopian society were the hallmarks of Orwell’s seminal novel, Nineteen Eighty–Four. Huxley wrote that he felt that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty–Four “is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency”.
There is much talk about controlling behaviour and thoughts through manipulating chemical levels in the brain under the initial guise of making us more efficient and smarter. Clearly there are issues regarding freedom which need to be considered here, the possible outworking of which the literary skills of Huxley and Orwell so chillingly sketch out for us. Bypassing and overriding the sense of making decisions on the basis of judgement and not simply be virtue of the right chemical levels, also removes our freedom, liberty and choice. Based on this understanding it does not seem too much of a stretch to think that if we know someone intends to commit a crime, why not track their thoughts and act pre–emptively through something like ‘Precrime’, the specialized police department in the film Minority Report which apprehends criminals based on foreknowledge. Being able to read minds may help us to be able to see what someone has done and whether they did it on purpose but would we be able to distinguish between thoughts and fantasies which were merely the figment of our imaginations or actually something acted upon? It is an understatement to say that there is a crucial and profound difference between the two.
Whilst there is much to celebrate in terms of advances made in the field of science, it becomes increasing apparent, particularly in the field of neuroscience, that our bodies and brains are fast becoming projects for us to master, take control over, design and meld according to our own desires. A simple but definitive ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to whether this should be the case I do not think will suffice. But engagement with the profound implications of these issues is imperative if we are to engage with the future of humanity in a considered and effective manner.
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