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Summary of Special Lecture on “Cyberneuroethics” by Dr Calum MacKellar

Summary of Special Lecture on Cyberneuroethics

Date: 15th July 2019
Location: Thammasat University, Tha Phra Chan Campus
Speaker: Dr Calum MacKellar, Director of Research at the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics
Note: Scottish Council on Human Bioethics is the organisation that assists the Scottish government, especially the Scottish Parliament, to draft new laws in medicine.

Human Bioethics

Definition of Bioethics

“bio” means life (Greek)

“ethics” means the focus on the good and the bad of any procedures such as cloning and transplantation

Ethics is used to draft human rights laws or legislations such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (UDHR) which is a basis of all legislation in the world. This legislation is a soft law which is not legally binding, but it can be used by judges. 

The Scottish Council on Human Bioethics (SCHB) helps the government to write legislation in biomedical sciences.

Cyberneuroethics

The SCHB is one of the first organisations in the world that works on cyberneuroethics and the SCHB has been working on this topic for 7 years. The SCHB examines the ethical consequences of the direct interface in the two following situations.

  1. Neuronal System-Computer interface: This is a situation when the brain is directly linked up to the computer.

Dr MacKellar pointed out that the character who is a half-human and a half-machine from the Star Trek, a science fiction series, could be a sample for this situation.

  1. Mind-Cyberspace interface: This is a situation when the mind is linked with the cyberspace. The mind is different from the brain. The brain is the neuro system. However, the mind is not tangible and it is the force inside our brain.

Dr MacKellar talked about the famous science fiction book called Feed by Matthew Anderson in 2000. In this book, all the young people are directly linked up to cyberspace which enables individuals to:

  • Mentally access vast digital knowledge databases. Thus, they do not need to revise for exams anymore.
  • Experience shareable virtual reality phenomena. Therefore, they can share everything that they think about with their neighbours.
  • Communicate telepathically. Thereby, they can communicate straight with the brain

Then, privacy and self-ownership are constantly being challenged to fit individuals into consumer profiles. In other words, people were bombarded by adverts. The problem in this book is that some of the poor people do not have the machines in their brain which is as effective as the rich people.

This situation is possible to happen in the near future because technology developers including Elon Musk (a super scientist) and Ray Kurzweil (a chief engineer of Google) are developing and working on the creation of computer chips which can be put inside the brains in the future.

Definition of Cyberneuroethics

    “Cyber” (prefix) means interactions with electronic systems which comes from “Cybernetics” (Greek): a steersman, pilot or rudder e.g. cybercafés, cyborgs (a half-living being and a half-machine), cyberwarfare, cybercrime (it is becoming a whole new area of laws)

    “Neuro” (prefix) means the way that the brain is used to understand other disciplines or ideas. e.g. neurosciences, neuromarketing (an understanding of how the brain works in order to sell merchandise), neuro-food (the food that makes the brain function better)

Neuronal Interface Systems     

  1. Interfacing out (output) of the neuronal system.

This is a situation when the information inside the brain is transmitted to the computer. This can be done by wearing an Electroencephalogram (EEG). This is an example of the non-invasive output neuronal interface. It is a machine which detects the very small electrical activity of many hundreds of thousands of neurons. All around the EEG, there are the electrons which can measure the activities inside the brain. It can tell a little bit about what a person wearing the EEG is thinking about. The EEGs are commercially used for computer gaming. Instead of typing or clicking on the laptop, the players wearing the EEGs can just only think to control their characters in the games.   

  1. Interfacing into (input) neuronal system

This is a situation when the information from the computer is transmitted to the brain. This interface is aimed to deal with certain diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. This can be done by deep brain stimulation. It is an example of an invasive input neuronal interface. This machine puts the electrodes inside the brain to stop the trembling of the patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. However, putting the electrodes inside brains could also change the whole character of the persons.

  1. Interfaces made of feed-back loop system

This is a situation when the information is taken out of the brain and put into the brain. This system put together the first and second systems. This can be done by putting a computer chip inside the brain. This is an example of an invasive feedback neuronal interface. The chip is linked up with the computer. When the people with the chip is thinking, they can move the cursor in the computer and control it with their eyes. This system has been used with the disabled or paralysed people. However, there is a risk of infection when putting the chip inside the brain. In the future, this system can be used with the normal people who are not disabled but want to have more capacity with their brains.    

Ethical Issues

Dr MacKellar also discussed these 11 following ethical issues.

1. Online Humans

  • The Machine Stops (famous science fiction film) by E. M. Forster 1909. In this story, most human beings live underground in isolation and in a standard ‘cell’. The only way to communicate is to use the telephone and it is impolite to meet anyone in person in this society. All bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global machine. After the machine had started to break down, there was a panic that all the lives linked to this machine might have to stop working.
  • The 28-year-old S Korean died after playing an online computer game for 50 hours in 2005. There are risks of being online all the time.

2. Changing Cognition

  • Cognition is anything to do with the mind and how the mind works. Putting chips and linking up to the brains with the computer could change the intelligence. This can improve the memory as well as change the processing speed of the brain. It can also change free will and moral responsibility. e.g. stop the mind of somebody in order to prevent he/she from committing a crime.
  • Scottish Council on Human Bioethics Recommendations (for Scottish parliament):
    • Everyone should have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. For instance, a person with learning difficulties should have the right to boost his brainpower, if he wants to. People brain should not be controlled.
    • Neuronal interfaces should not be able to affect a person’s free will and responsibilities. People should be allowed to make their own decision. People should not be considered as biological robots.

3. Changing Consciousness

  • The scientists still do not know the exact definition of consciousness.
  • Macmillan Dictionary of Psychology 1989 by Stuart Sutherland, a British psychologist: Consciousness – The having of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings; awareness. The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means… Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it has evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it”
  • Scottish Council on Human Bioethics Recommendations: Neuronal interfaces used with the aim of controlling, coercing or dominating others should be prohibited.

4. Escaping Reality

  • People start to live more and more in virtual reality such as science fiction world like in the Avatar (film)
  • Scottish Council on Human Bioethics Recommendations:
    • Neuronal interfaces should not be used to enable a permanent escape from reality.
    • Nonenhanced persons should not be subject to any discrimination of any kind.

5. Seeking Happiness and Avoiding Suffering

  • The Giver (famous science fiction book and film) by Lois Lowry 1993. In this story, suffering no longer exists. This is a perfect society in the future. However, there is only one old man who knows wisdom and how suffering feels. Jonas is chosen by the old man to replace him in the future. Jonas learns about pain, sadness, war, and all the unhappy truths of the ‘real’ world from the old man, the Giver. In the first place, Jonas felt overwhelmed by those feelings. However, he also understands that his perfect community is a shame because there is no compassion and empathy.
  • Without at least a capacity to suffer, like robots, there is no compassion (Latin ‘suffering with’) and empathy (Greek ‘feeling in’). Such a capacity to suffer is required to be a real person. This is the problem in the future when the robots were to become persons.

6. Changing Identity of the Human Being

  • In the future, people can become anybody that they like such as changing their ability, sex, or religious. This is one of the problems with identity. However, putting electrodes inside the brain could change the people character.
  • In Central Bosnia in 2007, using fake names, Sana Klaric and husband Adnan poured their hearts out in a chatroom online over their marriage troubles. At the end of the story, they got a divorce as they complain that the other person is unfaithful. This shows that going online can change the identity of human. (Metro News 17 September 2007)

7.  The Concept of What is Human

  • There is no definition of “human” in -all Europe even though all legislation is based on the human person.
  • Transhumanism is something that is better than human but there still has a bit of human left.
  • Posthumanism has a mind living in computers but there is nothing like a human left.
  • Scottish Council on Human Bioethics Recommendations:
    • Human bodies (including the brains) should be able to be enhanced through technology. There is nothing wrong to make human brains better.
    • Society should seek to define what constitutes humanity as a matter of urgency. To ensure what that law should apply to human legislation or animal legislation.

According to the British government, if something has 50% of the human gene, it is human. There is an error, in some cases, this rule cannot be applied. e.g. 55% of banana has the same gene as human.

8. Uploading Minds

  • Transcendence (famous sci-fiction film) by Wally Pfister 2014. Dr Will’s consciousness is uploaded into a supercomputer just before he dies. Then, his mind continues to work on a computer. It likes cloning oneself into the computer. When the real one dies, the cloned one in the computer continuing to live.
  • Hava Tirosh Samuelson (religious commentator) indicates that “computers will solve human problems, and when human beings upload their minds into machines, they will not only live longer, happier lives, but they will also attain immortality, the very end that traditional religions promised their adherents.”

9. Total Communion of Minds

  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (French Catholic Jesuit priest) maintained: Human beings are evolving in interconnectivity. Thoughts of all the individuals around the globe are being connected into a global consciousness or a collective mind. He called it a ‘Noosphere’ Greek (‘nous’ means mind or reason and ‘sphaira’ means sphere). Eventually, this would culminate in the ‘Omega Point’ which is a kind of union with God. By connecting everybody together, there will be superconsciousness on this world and that would be a god created by a human being. Therefore, this idea was rejected by the Catholic church.
  • Star Trek (Science Fiction Series): The Borg is an amalgamation of personal individualities becoming a hive mind called the Collective. The Borg’s aim is to assimilate by force ever more identities into the collective. Its ultimate goal is achieving perfection and its motto is resistance is futile.
  • Scottish Council on Human Bioethics Recommendations:
    • Human beings should not seek to create new persons by uploading their minds into cyberspace or by any other means.
    • A complete communion of minds in cyberspace should not be permitted.

10. Issues of Privacy

  • This issue is more relevant to the law than the previous. For instance, the ability to read minds might create no privacy in the future and lead the legal issues.
  • The Circle (famous science fiction novel and film) by David Eggers 2013: Everyone knows what everybody else is thinking all the time. Story of a society in which anyone who is not linked to the Circle cyber network web is seen as an outcast. “You reject the groups, the people, the listeners out there who want to connect, to empathize and embrace.” There will be no privacy anymore because privacy and individuality are seen as something negative and suspicious.
  • Panopticon Prison in Cuba It is the circle prison which the guard at the middle can see all of the prisoners through the cells making prisoners behave themselves. The way the one guard can keep all the privacy of all the prisoners and thus has the power over these prisoners. This is the power imbalance as there is no privacy for the prisoners.
  • Scottish Council on Human Bioethics Recommendations:
    • Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
    • There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of the right to privacy except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary for a democratic society. e.g. a patient who is thinking of committing a crime
    • Reading the minds of other persons should only take place with appropriate consent.
    • The skull should be a controlled and protected privacy zone.
    • Individuals have a right to determine what data about themselves should be processed, by whom and for what purpose.

11. New Cybercrimes

  • There are issues related to identity theft (electronic back card or identity card) and hurting other real people through cyberspace (e.g. unfaithful marriage leading to divorce).
  • Scottish Council on Human Bioethics Recommendations: A real person should be held responsible if he or she commits a crime in cyberspace that may have consequences on another real person or organisation.

Conclusion (Policy Concerns)

Scottish Council on Human Bioethics Recommendations:

  • A broad social and political debate should be initiated to examine what kind of neuronal interface applications should be accepted and legally approved, particularly concerning surveillance and enhancement.
  • National ethics councils should address neuronal interfaces and the resulting interactions between the mind and cyberspace.
  • The precautionary principle should be invoked when serious risks exist relating to neuronal interface implants. In particular, it should be possible to distinguish between:
    • active and passive implants
    • reversible and irreversible implants
    • offline and online implants
    • medical and non-medical applications
  • The subject’s consent is not sufficient to allow any kind of implant to be used.
  • A person’s consent to use neuronal interfaces should be able to be withdrawn at any time.