Can privacy coexist with technology that reads and changes brain activity?

Ethicists, scientists and our readers consider the ethics of brain technology

Gertrude the pig rooted around a straw-filled pen, oblivious to the cameras and onlookers — and the 1,024 electrodes eavesdropping on her brain signals. Each time the pig’s snout found a treat in a researcher’s hand, a musical jingle sounded, indicating activity in her snout-controlling nerve cells.

Those beeps were part of the big reveal on August 28 by Elon Musk’s company Neuralink. “In a lot of ways, it’s kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” said Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, of the new technology.

Neuroscientists have been recording nerve cell activity from animals for decades. But the ambitions of Musk and others to link humans with computers are shocking in their reach. Future-minded entrepreneurs and researchers aim to listen in on our brains and perhaps even reshape thinking. Imagine being able to beckon our Teslas with our minds, Jedi-style.

Some scientists called Gertrude’s introduction a slick publicity stunt, full of unachievable promises. But Musk has surprised people before. “You can’t argue with a guy who built his own electric car and sent it to orbit around Mars,” says Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.

images of gertrude the pig and her brain signals
Whenever Gertrude’s snout touched something, nerve cells in her brain fired electrical signals detected by an implanted device (signals shown as wavy lines on black). Similar technology may one day help people with paralysis or brain disorders.

Whether Neuralink will eventually merge brains and Teslas is beside the point. Musk isn’t the only dreamer chasing neurotechnology. Advances are coming quickly and span a variety of approaches, including external headsets that may be able to distinguish between hunger and boredom; implanted electrodes that translate intentions to speak into real words; and bracelets that use nerve impulses for typing without a keyboard.

Today, paralyzed people are already testing brain-computer interfaces, a technology that connects brains to the digital world (SN: 11/16/13, p. 22). With brain signals alone, users have been able to shop online, communicate and even use a prosthetic arm to sip from a cup (SN: 6/16/12, p. 5). The ability to hear neural chatter, understand it and perhaps even modify it could change and improve people’s lives in ways that go well beyond medical treatments. But these abilities also raise questions about who gets access to our brains and for what purposes.

Readers’ thoughts

We asked members of the public for their take on the ethics of new brain technology. A sampling of their quotes are on the following pages.

“The thoughts of someone accessing a person’s brain is absolutely terrifying.”

“I have no wish/desire to be a zombie or a clone.”

Because of neurotechnology’s potential for both good and bad, we all have a stake in shaping how it’s created and, ultimately, how it is used. But most people don’t have the chance to weigh in, and only find out about these advances after they’re a fait accompli. So we asked Science News readers their views about recent neurotechnology advances. We described three main ethical issues — fairness, autonomy and privacy. Far and away, readers were most concerned about privacy.

The idea of allowing companies, or governments, or even health care workers access to the brain’s inner workings spooked many respondents. Such an intrusion would be the most important breach in a world where privacy is already rare. “My brain is the only place I know is truly my own,” one reader wrote.

Technology that can change your brain — nudge it to think or behave in certain ways — is especially worrisome to many of our readers. A nightmare scenario raised by several respondents: We turn into zombies controlled by others.

When these types of brain manipulations get discussed, several sci-fi scenarios come to mind, such as memories being wiped clean in the poignant 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; ideas implanted into a person’s mind, as in the 2010 movie Inception; or people being tricked into thinking a virtual world is the real thing, as in the mind-bending 1999 thriller The Matrix.

Today’s tech capabilities are nowhere near any of those fantasies. Still, “the here and now is just as interesting … and just as morally problematic,” says neuroethicist Timothy Brown of the University of Washington in Seattle. “We don’t need The Matrix to get our dystopia.”

changes brain activity
The ability to nudge brain activity in certain directions raises ethical questions.Julia Yellow

Today, codes of ethics and laws govern research, medical treatments and certain aspects of our privacy. But we have no comprehensive way to handle the privacy violations that might arise with future advances in brain science. “We are all flying by the seat of our pants here,” says Rafael Yuste, a neurobiologist at Columbia University.

For now, ethics questions are being taken up in a piecemeal way. Academic researchers, bioethicists and scientists at private companies, such as IBM and Facebook, are discussing these questions among themselves. Large brain-research consortiums, such as the U.S. BRAIN Initiative (SN: 2/22/14, p. 16), include funding for projects that address privacy concerns. Some governments, including Chile’s national legislature, are starting to address concerns raised by neurotechnology.

With such disjointed efforts, it’s no surprise that no consensus has surfaced. The few answers that exist are as varied as the people doing the asking.

Laura Sanders
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