By Imogen Reed
Where do men end and machines begin? It’s a question that scientists and ethical philosophers are asking much more seriously at the moment. We all begin to wonder this when we’ve spent four hours online looking for holiday deals, or the best savings rates – technology has become so immersive, particularly in the field of computer games, that we are looking at the dawning of true virtual reality in the next few
decades. But the ethics of man combined with machine, particularly in the field of neurotechnology is concerning some. So concerned are they that the highly esteemed Nuffield Council on Bioethics has launched a consultation to look into the issue. The concern centers around the use of mind controlled machines, which are in development at the moment.
Scientists are already using Deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, OCD and stroke, with the use of electrodes passed into the brain and out to a battery pack attached to the body. There is research into using it to treat more conditions, such as anorexia, obesity, Tourette’s and addictions. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is the use of magnetic fields to stimulate electrical currents deep within the brain. This is rather more controversial, since although it is being used to treat conditions such as depression and migraines, it is also of interest for non-medical bodies. It appears to enhance cognitive abilities, improving the capacity of individuals to perform memory tasks and mathematical tests.
As with any technological advancements, where science goes, the military follow. The area of neurotechnology they are interested in is Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) The medical applications of this are obvious – robotic arms and mind controlled wheelchairs would be a clear advantage for the disabled, but it is the application of such technology to weapons that is causing concern. Extensive research is already underway to develop mind-controlled weapons systems. But the ethical issues it raises are manifold. We have already had ethical debate surrounding the use of drones – remotely controlled weapons delivery. The classic philosophical conundrum of the trolley problem came into play, as the morality of delivering death by remote means raised questions about whether it diminished our sense of right and wrong. To what extent is it easier to kill when you are sat in an air-conditioned control room, rather than mired in the heat, dirt and blood of the battlefield? Could it lead to more war crimes, a complete disconnect between human beings and the results of their actions. The fact that computer game developers are equally interested in the technology is telling. American soldiers are currently trained with virtual reality technology and computer game technology, to improve their performance on the battlefield.
Scope Of Consultation
The chairman of the Working Group is Professor Thomas Baldwin, and part of its remit is to “identify and consider the ethical, legal and social issues that arise from the use of novel neurotechnologies to intervene in the human brain in both clinical practice and non-medical settings.” He is keenly aware of the potential for these technologies to be exploited, citing the possibility of the development of mind to mind communication, the dangers of implanting computer chips within the brain, and the point at which human morality is challenged by these innovations. What if some students use TMS, for example, to improve their math grades, as has been hypothesized. Where does that leave those who don’t wish to? Disadvantaged, certainly. In what sense can individuals be asked to take responsibility for their actions, if their brains are being remotely controlled? A true Manchurian Candidate could be manufactured quite easily, for political ends, without them being held accountable for their actions. In Professor Baldwin’s words, these issues ‘… challenge us to think carefully about fundamental questions to do with the brain: what makes us human, what makes us an individual and how and why we think and behave in the way we do.’ When we begin to think about the extent of the ethical issues raised The Nuffield Council’s consultation seems very timely.