Brain-computer interfaces and the future of neurotechnology governance

By David Winickoff

Senior Policy Analyst, OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation

The entrepreneur Elon Musk made headlines – and raised eyebrows – last month with a demonstration of a new brain implant on a pig named Gertrude. The prototype computer chip, developed by Musk’s company Neuralink, was implanted in Gertrude’s brain and recorded her neural activity as she ate and moved around an enclosed space. This data was then wirelessly transmitted to a display, allowing viewers to track her neural activity on a graph in real-time.

This prototype will not be implanted in human brains anytime soon – Musk himself acknowledged that the aim of the event was to recruit more scientists to his company – and the demonstration was met with scepticism from some experts. Yet Musk believes that this technology could one day allow people to control devices with their minds, touting its potential to cure dementia, Parkinson’s and other conditions. In the longer-term, Musk hopes such applications of neurotechnology (devices and procedures used to access, monitor, investigate, assess, manipulate, and/or emulate the structure and function of the neural systems) will lead to an age of “superhuman cognition”, which he sees as an inevitable and necessary counterweight to increasingly powerful artificial intelligence (AI) systems. 

Today, that may sound like fodder for a science fiction movie, but this future may be closer than you think. In an article published in the New York Times a few days after Musk’s event, science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff outlines the recent history (and potential future) of brain implants, from an AI-powered machine that can translate a person’s thoughts into images, to more recent work on optogenetics, a method through which perceptions actually are written onto a person’s brain. The trajectory that this nascent technology will take is still uncertain, but experts quoted in the piece say that we could be at the dawn of a new era in computing:

Rafael Yuste, a neurobiologist at Columbia University, counts two great advances in computing that have transformed society: the transition from room-size mainframe computers to personal computers that fit on a desk (and then in your lap), and the advent of mobile computing with smartphones in the 2000s. Noninvasive brain-reading tech would be a third great leap, he says.
“Forget about the Covid crisis,” Dr. Yuste told me. “What’s coming with this new tech can change humanity.”

The article is full of examples of how neurotechnology has advanced in recent years, and how these technologies may seamlessly transition from medical applications (e.g. helping those suffering from paralysis or mental illness) to the commercial realm (e.g. for boosting cognition and providing new gaming experiences). The piece also underscores an important convergence taking place between AI and neurotechnology, and raises ethical questions that, according to some experts, should be addressed urgently.

“The lesson in Dr. Yuste’s view is not that we’ll soon have lasers mounted on our heads that play us ‘like pianos’”, Velasquez-Manoff writes, “but that brain-reading and possibly brain-writing technologies are fast approaching, and society isn’t prepared for them.” Roberto Adorno and Marcello Ilenca, sociologists of science, consider that the ethical and social issues raised by neurotechnology are so new and compelling that we may need a new set of human rights -centred on a notion of “cognitive liberty”.

There is now more interest than ever in the future of neurotechnology.

The OECD is actively working to respond to these concerns. Recent OECD work on neurotechnology and innovation related to brain science has found that advances in these fields present major opportunities for health innovation and societal benefits; but it also calls for oversight given the difficult questions that such advances raise at the intersection of science, society and the economy. Our work underscores the need for continuous, inclusive, and international deliberation that balances a sufficiently broad vision with the needs of communities of practice.

The OECD Recommendation on Responsible Innovation in Neurotechnology is an early and important result of such deliberation. Adopted in 2019 as the first international standard of its kind, the Neurotechnology Recommendation is centred around nine principles to help governments anticipate and move upstream in the governance process, while still promoting innovation in the field. Although the Recommendation is focused on applications in the health domain, its language and principles are broad enough to be applied to other areas, as well.

The Recommendation embodies a “responsible innovation” approach that seeks to cope with a dilemma at the heart of technology governance: regulating too early can stifle innovation but regulating further downstream may be too late to influence how technology operates in society. Good governance can actually enable technology, rather than restraining it. This insight – focused on governance from the perspective of innovation — sets the Recommendation apart from many other, if not all, international instruments dealing with technology in society.

Governance of this novel technology will become increasingly important as it expands to new fields and converges with other technologies such as AI. Indeed, the Neurotechnology Recommendation can be seen as a companion to the OECD AI Principles, also adopted in 2019, which seek to promote AI that is responsible and trustworthy, with respect for human rights and democratic values. Both sets of principles aim not to constrain innovation, but to shape pathways for innovating in socially responsible ways.

In that sense, then, Musk’s recent demonstration, and the strong interest and investment from the private sector more broadly, can be seen as encouraging signs. Neuralink’s brain implant may or may not prove applicable in humans, and we may never live in a Matrix­-style reality full of mind-controlled gadgets. But as Velasquez-Manoff’s article makes clear, there is now more interest than ever in the future of neurotechnology, and that allows space for the open deliberation, debate and discussion that we need to ensure that we create the future we want.  

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