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AAAS meeting debates the ethics of body-machine interfaces

18 February 2013

The AAAS meeting in Boston discusses the ethical, legal and social issues surrounding the use of health promoting or performance enhancing devices such as brain-machine interfaces.

An 'electronic tattoo' being applied (image: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering)
An 'electronic tattoo' being applied (image: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering)

An 'electronic tattoo' the size of a postage stamp and the thickness of a human hair can be used to monitor women in labour and seizure-prone infants, because it provides a non-invasive way to track the electrical rhythms on the surface of the body, according to Todd Coleman of the University of California, San Diego.

Another apparatus, developed by Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University Medical Center and colleagues, allows rats to 'feel' infared light by stimulating the tactile center in their brains.

Devices like these could have remarkable benefits, but they may also lead to ethical, legal and social quandaries that should be discussed as the technology progresses, claim researchers at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, which ends today (February 18).

Speakers in the session on brain-machine interfaces, organised by AAAS’ Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) programme, suggested that the most extreme examples — of cyborgs or people endowed with superhuman abilities courtesy of machines — are far from becoming reality. But neuroscience applications, in particular, are moving along much faster than other technologies like genetic engineering in the quest to build a better human.

Martha Farah, who directs the Centre for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, warned that the technologies may bring other worries in the near term: Will only the rich and connected be able to take advantage of the devices and the health or performance enhancements that they bring? Will the devices be so good at transmitting brainwaves that our private thoughts are compromised? Will hackers be able to control our thoughts through these new interfaces?

Many of these technologies, beginning with cochlear implants for the deaf and including Coleman’s tattoos, got their start as a way to correct health deficits or perform critical clinical functions. But Farah said that this was the same notion at first behind plastic surgery and drugs for hyperactivity, both of which are now used widely by people without obvious health issues. “In the near term, there will be questions of how modest these disabilities should be before considering these invasive interventions.”

Brent Waters, an associate professor of Christian social ethics at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, said that most religious people would not object to the therapeutic applications of these devices. He said more people would be concerned if brain-machine interfaces became ubiquitous in the search for human perfection, since “these quests have usually ended up inhumane regimes.”

Nicolelis reassured the AAAS audience, however, that a non-invasive patch like the Coleman tattoo could never be powerful enough to download and broadcast all the contents of a person’s brain. “That’s not how the brain works. It is not computable like that.” 

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