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NeuroRights: shall we protect our minds from intrusive neuro technologies?

As we enter a new digital era, our Human Rights may need to evolve to protect us from some intrusive technologies - like neurotechnology - that could modify our brain. Chile is becoming the first country in the world to add NeuroRights in its Constitution. What is neurotechnology and what concerns does it raise? Should we update the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights with new NeuroRights?

Many believe that controlling and manipulating the human brain will be a major geopolitical battlefield of the 21st century. Neurotechnology is defined as any technology that has a fundamental influence on how people understand the brain and various aspects of consciousness, thought and activities in the brain. It’s basically when you get "under the skull".

Barack Obama established the BRAIN Initiative in 2013 (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) to build neurotechnologies. This Initiative is part of an ambitious, public-private collaborative effort to develop new experimental tools that will revolutionise our understanding of the brain. It also has stimulated similar programs all over the world.

(Source: Atalayar - US President Barack Obama announces the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative)

So far, many of these technologies have applications in medicine, such as brain-computer interfaces (BCI) that helps patients move prosthetic limbs or communicate after a brain injury. But according to Dr. John Krakauer (a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University), those neurotechnologies will increasingly be available outside of the medical context.

Indeed, there are more and more companies that develop projects linked to neurotechnology and AI. They want to offer commercial products and address the mass market for other purposes like video games, self-health monitoring and education. It will generate enormous amounts of valuable data for the companies that own this technology. For instance, Google had access to a large amount of data with its DeepMind program - developing deep learning algorithms and AI in general. With neurotechnology, companies like Neuralink or Kernel will potentially benefit from this data collection in the same way as Google.

Elon Musk is actively developing his Neuralink's brain-computer interface (BCI) project which will lead to a new revolution. Indeed, neurotech devices will soon meld mind and machine, allowing us to communicate easily with our computers and even just by using our mind (see this Futuria article on Neuralink that makes monkeys play video games with their brain). The company recently raised funds to take their first product - the N1 Link - to the market and to accelerate their research and development effort. Furthermore, NeuroTechX - an international community facilitating the advancement of neurotechnology - showed with their online event series that the gaming industry is already actively using neurotechnologies in its products.

There is also an emerging field of educational neuroscience. For instance, The Brainwave Learning Center (BLC) seeks to explore how educational experiences help shape brain development. Their goal is "to build deep relationships between cognitive neuroscience researchers and members of the school to explore how brain activity is transformed through learning experiences, and how those insights can enrich education".

Finally, neurotechnologies could be extended to the military and defense industry. Indeed, research is actively conducted in neurosecurity (security and privacy for neural devices) and neuroweapons, which is a strategic area of governments and military institutions for "modern warfare". Neurotechnology could be used to enhance the cognitive performance of warfighters and to exploit artificial intelligence (AI) in autonomous and robotic weapons systems. You could communicate with other soldiers, pilot a drone or trigger some weapons just with your brain, using a BCI. This is also part of the US Defense agency DARPA's "Super Soldier" project.

Another major area for immersive and revolutionnary applications is gaming. Open BCI is working on an open source brain computer interface for gaming. They consider designing a new helmet offering both mixed reality and brain computer interface, that would take even further the gaming experience and attract the interest of a large and young public.

(Source: YouTube - Web Summit)

As you can see on the video above, Dr Yuste and Dr. John Krakauer discussed NeuroRights and brain arms race during an online panel at the Web Summit - a global tech conference. “If you can record and change neurons, you can in principle read and write the minds of people”, Dr Yuste said. Dr Yuste launched the NeuroRights Initiative (NRI) from Columbia University’s Neurotechnology Center as an organization defending human rights directives. It also aims at developing further ethical guidance for neurotechnological innovation. Dr Yuste wants NeuroRights to be a step towards regulating the rest of digital technologies to protect the brain from current threats such as illegal collection and trade of personal data.

Furthermore, neurotechnologies are largely unregulated. Nonetheless, Chile is keen to lead the drafting of NeuroRights legislation. On October 7th, 2020, a Constitutional Reform and a NeuroProtection Bill of Law were presented to the Chilean Senate for the recognition and protection of NeuroRights. Both proposals were approved by the Senate Committee on October 30th and by the Chilean Senate on December 16th, 2020.

The constitutional reform defines mental identity as a right that cannot be manipulated and that any mental intervention - including medical therapies - must be legally regulated. To protect people from mind control, this reform will limit neurotechnology and neuroalgorithms.

The Bill of Law includes five fundamental rights:

- The right to personal identity - The right to free will

- The right to mental privacy

- The right to equal access to cognitive enhancement

- Right to protection against algorithmic bias

The Bill defines all data obtained from the brain as 'neurodata' and applies existing organ donation legislation to it, thus prohibiting the trade in neurodata. Neural data should be treated as a special kind of information that is intimately related to our identity and to who we are. Therefore, the bill states that neural data must be legally considered as organic tissue. It also applies medical legislation to the future use and development of neurotechnology.

(Source: Atalayar - Session voting on a bill to legislate on "neurorights" or brain rights in Chile)

Even if progress in neurotechnology has many benefits, it raises many ethical, legal, and social issues. This technology has blurred the line between private and public information. Indeed, future consumers have no control over what personal information about them can be digitally gathered. This may force governments to regulate how this information is applied.

This technology coud lead to controlling people's behavior and mind. Thus, many people worry about unforeseen consequences and unethical manipulations of behavior by getting under the skull with neurotechnology. Companies and scientists have to be careful about the introduction of this technology to a broader public and many defend the idea that boundaries need to be set by developing a global consensus with international organisations (OECD, UNESCO, United Nations).

The OECD adopted in 2019 a Recommendation on Responsible Innovation in Neurotechnology. It is the first international standard in this domain. It aims at guiding governments and innovators to anticipate and address the ethical, legal, and social challenges raised by neurotechnologies while promoting innovation.

Moreover, the current universal declaration of human rights date back to 1948 and seems outdated with the evolution of new technologies. Indeed, it protects the physical integrity of human beings but not their psychological integrity (it was impossible to foresee the society of AI, digital platforms, and neurotechnologies in 1948). Thus, having a new international declaration of human rights could be a solution to develop a global consensus with NeuroRights.

Finally, some believe that the European Union should follow Chile's example and avoid harmful uses of technology before it is too late. There is already some legal progress in Spain, with State Secretary for AI who launched the Digital Rights charter to ensure new human rights for this digital era we live in.

(Source: Atalayar - Chile is not only an example in the protection of NeuroRights for the EU, but also in the regulation of possible future risks)

To conclude, it is necessary to regulate neurotechnology and to recognise the protection of NeuroRights in the international society. Although the development of BCI, neuroalgorithms, and neurotechnology is starting with healthcare and scientific research, its reach could soon be extended to the broader consumer market. Without any regulation, it could have unforeseen consequences on our freedom and our humanity.

As neurotechnology is specifically linked to brain activity and human identity, many people wonder if this situation deserves a particular legislation amendment, specific to the evolution of this technology. Some will argue it's another example of resistance to change and that progress cannot be stopped anyway. Others believe that this time, we are touching to the esence of human being and that a laissez-faire approach would be extremely dangerous and would lead to the most dystopian scenario for our societies.

Finally, people like Dr Yuste who want to have proper legislation for the sector of neurotechnology might struggle to achieve real global legislation. Do they stand a chance to get what they want against the large techs and some autoritarian governments? Their only chance might be to get it done as soon as possible, before neurotechnology goes beyond the healthcare sector, into the gaming industry for instance, which is the best angle to attract the youngest generations.

If you want to know more, read this interesting article from Atalayar:

You can also check this Futuria article about Neuralink's BCI (brain-computer interface):

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