New Frontiers of the Mind: Enabling responsible innovation in neurotechnology

By David Winickoff and Hermann Garden

OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation

Scientists have spent decades trying to unlock the mysteries of the brain, in an effort to better diagnose and treat some of the most confounding diseases and disorders. Now, thanks to groundbreaking developments in brain science and neurotechnology, they seem closer than ever before. 

Fueled by the convergence of neuroscience, engineering, digitalisation and artificial intelligence (AI), these technologies have tremendous potential to improve health, well-being and productivity across the globe – and their effects are already being felt. Brain computer interfaces and new imaging approaches have opened up new avenues for diagnosis, monitoring, prevention and therapy in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases; and brain implants are already being used to stimulate neural activity in patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Researchers are even working to embed neurons and brain-like structures within computer chips that could provide a new way to conduct pre-clinical tests and diagnostics.

These innovations could deliver far-reaching benefits – nearly 19 million people live with dementia across the OECD – but they also pose serious risks. As neurotechnologies continue to evolve, concerns have been raised around privacy, human enhancement and the regulation and marketing of direct-to-consumer devices. There are also important questions around inequalities of use and access to these technologies.

How can we continue to reap the benefits of these innovations, while mitigating the new risks that they present?

Amid this rapidly shifting landscape, governments and innovators have sought guidance on how to foster responsible innovation in neurotechnology. How can we continue to reap the benefits of these innovations, while mitigating the new risks that they present?

A new set of OECD principles sets out a way forward. On 11 December 2019 we adopted the Recommendation on Responsible Innovation in Neurotechnology, the first international standard in this domain. It aims to help governments and innovators anticipate and address the various ethical, legal and social challenges raised by new neurotechnologies, while still promoting innovation in the field. The underlying aim is not to constrain technology, but to shape pathways that enable it.

At the core of the Recommendation are nine principles: 

  1. Promoting responsible innovation
  2. Prioritising safety assessment
  3. Promoting inclusivity
  4. Fostering scientific collaboration
  5. Enabling societal deliberation
  6. Enabling capacity of oversight and advisory bodies
  7. Safeguarding personal brain data and other information
  8. Promoting cultures of stewardship and trust across the public and private sector
  9. Anticipating and monitoring potential unintended use and/or misuse. 

Although the Recommendation is not binding, it nevertheless marks an important step forward for the 36 OECD member countries that have adopted it and the others that will soon join. Governance in neurotechnology has implications across the entire innovation pipeline, from fundamental brain research and cognitive neuroscience to questions of commercialisation and marketing. To that end, the Recommendation is aimed not only at governments, but also universities, companies and investors – all of whom play a key role in ensuring the responsible development and governance of neurotechnologies. As countries continue to accelerate investment in this field through programs such as the EU Human Brain Project, the Recommendation and the principles it outlines should help them to put societal needs front and centre. 

The Recommendation is more than an ethics statement: it also addresses economic development and innovation policy. In many ways, it can be seen as a companion to the OECD AI Principles adopted earlier this year as they both underscore the importance of innovating in a socially responsible matter – innovating for innovation’s sake is no longer enough. And, like AI, neurotechnology is a broad field with implications for sectors as diverse as gaming and advertising. The OECD Recommendation focuses on health-related neurotechnology because of its outsize potential to advance our understanding of human cognition and behaviour. 

Going forward, the OECD will provide a forum for exchanging information on neurotechnology policy and experiences as countries work toward implementing the Recommendation. This kind of multilateral co-operation and dialogue will be crucial as neurotechnology continues to disrupt existing practices and redraw traditional boundaries between medical therapies and consumer markets. Given the nature of economic markets, technological spillover, and global science practice, one could argue that the governance of technology actually needs to be international in order to be effective.

The OECD has long been at the forefront of developing effective principles and guidance for governments and stakeholders alike – and we look forward to helping countries as they navigate and explore new frontiers in the human mind. 

This post originally appeared on the OECD Forum Network.

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