A United Nations panel has warned that brain chip technology being pioneered by Elon Musk could be abused for ‘neurosurveillance’ violating ‘mental privacy,’ or ‘even to implement forms of forced re-education,’ threatening human rights worldwide.
The UN’s agency for science and culture (UNESCO) said neurotechnology like Musk’s Neuralink, if left unregulated, will lead to ‘new possibilities of monitoring and manipulating the human mind through neuroimaging’ and ‘personality-altering’ tech.
UNESCO is now strategizing on a worldwide ‘ethical framework’ to protect humanity from the potential abuses of the technology — which they fear will be accelerated by advances in AI.
‘We are on a path to a world in which algorithms will enable us to decode people’s mental processes,’ said UNESCO’s assistant director-general for social and human sciences, Gabriela Ramos.
The implications are ‘far-reaching and potentially harmful,’ Ramos said, given breakthroughs in neurotechnology that could ‘directly manipulate the brain mechanisms’ in humans, ‘underlying their intentions, emotions and decisions.’
The committee’s warnings come less than two months after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave Elon Musk’s brain-chip implant company Neuralink federal approval to conduct trials on humans.
UNESCO’s assistant director-general for social and human sciences, Gabriela Ramos, told a 1000-participant bioethics conference last Thursday that the convergence of neurotech and AI ‘decode people’s mental processes and directly manipulate the brain’
Above, Emily Cross, a professor of Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the public research university ETH Zurich presented the UN bioethics committee’s key findings of the risks, promises, legal and ethical issues surrounding the new advances in neurotechnology
Neurotechnology like Musk’s Neuralink implants will connect the brain to computing power via thread-like electrodes sewn into to certain areas of the brain.
Neuralink’s electrodes will communicate with a chip to read signals produced by special cells in the brain called neurons, which transmit messages to other cells in the body, like our muscles and nerves.
Because neuron signals become directly translated into motor controls, Neuralink could allow humans to could control external technologies, such as computers or smartphones, or lost bodily functions or muscle movements, with their mind.
‘It’s like replacing a piece of the skull with a smartwatch,’ Musk has said.
But those communications pathways, as the UNESCO panel warned, cut both ways.
This May, scientists at the University of Texas at Austin revealed they were able to train an AI to effectively read people’s minds, converting brain data from test subjects taken via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) into written words.
UNESCO economist Mariagrazia Squicciarini, who specializes in artificial intelligence issues, noted that the capacity for machine learning algorithms to rapidly pull patterns out of complex data, like fMRI brain scans, will accelerate brain chips’ access to the human mind.
‘It’s like putting neurotech on steroids,’ Squicciarini said.
UNESCO convened a 1000-participant conference of its International Bioethics Committee (IBC) in Paris last Thursday and released recommendations Tuesday.
‘The spectacular development of neurotechnology as well as new biotechnologies, nanotechnologies and ICTs makes machines more and more humanoid,’ the IBC said in their report, ‘and people are becoming more connected to machines and AI.’
The IBC weighed numerous dystopian scenarios seemingly out of science fiction last week in their effort to get ahead of rapidly advancing threats to human ‘neurorights’ which have yet to even be codified under international law.
‘It is necessary to anticipate the effects of implementing neurotechnology,’ the UN panel noted. ‘There is a direct connection between freedom of thought, the rule of law and democracy.’
Among the IBC’s myriad of recommendations in its 91-page report, the committee called for wider transparency on neurotech research from industry and academia; as well as the drafting of ‘neurorights’ for inclusion into international human rights law.
The IBC report described the new tech in stark terms as a challenge to ‘some basic aspects of human dignity, such as privacy of mental life or individual agency.’
But UNESCO’s assistant director-general for social and human sciences, Gabriela Ramos, put the converging power of neurotechnology and AI into even starker terms.
Neuralink co-founder Elon Musk has likened the surgical procedure to ‘replacing a piece of the skull with a smartwatch,’ as the device connects to the brain, but rests on the scalp. Above, images from a primate experiment made public at a November2022 Neuralink Show and Tell
While Elon Musk (pictured) has voiced plans for Neuralink that have focused on the device’s potential health benefits — helping to curing a range of conditions from obesity and autism, to depression and schizophrenia — US federal regulators have focused on its capacity for harm
Reuters reported last December that the United States Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General has been investigating potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act at Neuralink, which governs how researchers are permitted to treat certain types of animals during tests
While Elon Musk’s plans for Neuralink have focused on the device’s potential health benefits — helping to cure a range of conditions from obesity and autism to depression and schizophrenia — US federal regulators have focused instead on its capacity for harm.
As reported by Reuters last December, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General has been investigating, at the request of a federal prosecutor, potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act at Neuralink.
The federal law governs how researchers are permitted to treat certain types of animals, within medical studies and other kinds of scientific experiments.
Neuralink has been the subject of congressional scrutiny as well, with US lawmakers urging regulators this past May to investigate whether the panel that oversees animal testing at Neuralink has contributed to botched and rushed experiments.
Neuralink’s recent FDA approval came after Musk has previously boasted that his medical device company would begin human trials for a human brain implant on at least four occasions since 2019.
Over the course of those four years, the FDA had rejected several Neuralink applications for human experimentation approval, most recently in early 2022, according to seven current and former employees who spoke to Reuters.
Musk has emphasized Neuralink’s potential to treat severe conditions such as paralysis and blindness, and occasionally more trivial applications, such as web browsing or telepathy.
But UNESCO’s IBC drew specific attention to the threat posed by ‘dual use’ AI brain chip technologies, which could easily be reprogrammed or retooled for less than benevolent applications on the human mind.
Amandeep Singh Gill, the Envoy on Technology for the United Nation’s Secretary-General, told UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee on Thursday that industry must be ‘brought into this discussion early’ to reduce the potential for abuse of neurotech ‘into the future’
‘The dual-use argument, which was generally brought up by bio-conservatives to emphasize risks,’ the committee noted in their report, ‘is now being used by bio-progressives to justify some development methods.’
‘Measures must be in place to protect against neurotechnologies being open to dual use,’ according to the IBC, so the medically beneficial neurotech from becoming twisted by hackers, corporate profiteers or even authoritarian regimes.
‘Neurotechnology has the potential for tremendous benefits in health, education and social relationships, but also holds the potential to deepen social inequities, to harm individuals’ privacy and to provide methods of manipulating individuals,’ they said.
Most of the UNESCO conference’s speakers voiced strong support for the creation of an actionable framework on neurotech similar to UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence.
As Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences, put it, ‘Groundbreaking developments in neurotechnology offer unprecedented potential. But we should remain aware of its negative impact if it is employed for malicious purposes.’
‘We must act now,’ she said, ‘to ensure it is not misused and does not threaten our societies and democracies.’
Read the full article here