Learn about the ethical issues of brain chips before tech finds its way under your skin.
Imagine accessing the internet by just thinking about it. In fact, imagine what it would be like if I could write this article all in my head instead of typing anything. Well, that is what Neuralink is capable of. Neuralink is a neurotechnological company run by Elon Musk that is working on creating chips that can be implanted into a person’s skull to track brain activity and potentially even stimulate it.
These chips would make it possible for those suffering from paralysis to use their smartphones with their brains. Musk says, that one day, the chips could also store all of a person’s memories as a backup. With such a unique piece of technology comes a lot of curiosity on how it works and the nervousness about what it would mean for the future. Let’s discuss both of these one by one.
How does the Neuralink chip work?
To understand how the chip works, we first need to learn how the brain works. The brain is made up of neurons that transmit information to different parts of the body and make all bodily processes happen. To detect the activity of neurons, the Neuralink chip would consist of tiny wires equipped with over a thousand electrodes that would cover the entirety of a person’s brain. The chip is the size of a coin and will be capable of wireless charging.
Neuralink was first tested on a pig named Gertrude in 2020. During the experiment, data collected from Gertrude’s brain was directly transmitted to computers where researchers studied it. The chip could accurately detect the position of Gertrude’s limbs as she walked on a treadmill.
Ethical issues surrounding Neuralink
Alleged animal cruelty
With the tests on Gertrude, experts had concluded that the wireless nature of the chip could be beneficial for animal testing because it does not involve wires poking out through their skin. However, when the testing moved on to monkeys, reports of animal cruelty soon began cropping up.
The U.S.-based animal rights group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) alleged that out of the 23 monkeys owned by Neuralink, only 7 had survived the testing process. As of February 2022, PCRM filed an official complaint with the US Department of Agriculture against Neuralink for inadequate animal care and invasive testing. The company has refuted the allegations, affirming that it works with animals in a humane manner. However, PCRM has filed a second lawsuit and continues to claim that the animals were mutilated and left to die.
Yes, as absurd as it sounds, there is a concern that Neuralink chips would be susceptible to hacking and in turn, mind control. The technology’s core strength, the ability to operate devices through your brain, is also its biggest flaw. The chips link the brain to computers and thus could provide hackers a path into the brain. Through this path, hackers could potentially convince high net-worth individuals to send their money to the hackers’ account or even manipulate elections in a specific candidate’s favor.
The company says that the chip would connect to your phone using Bluetooth, which has weak security standards. Musk has also mentioned that the Neuralink app (that would connect the smartphone to the brain) would be in the App Store, which is also worrying many experts. They believe people might accidentally download a copycat app, which again, would endanger the security of the chip.
If the technology actually ends up being capable of stimulating brain activity as the company claims, it could alter people’s personalities. While this might seem helpful for people recovering from mental health issues without the need for therapy or medication, it could lead to side effects. The brain stimulation provided by the chip might not always have positive effects and could end up fueling violent or aggressive impulses.
Physical and mental enhancement
Some are concerned that the chip’s ability to enhance human capabilities (in the long run) could mean that some people would end up with physical and mental advantages over others. Moreover, getting a chip implanted into your skull certainly wouldn’t be something everyone can afford. At the 2020 Neuralink demonstration, Musk said that including the surgery, the price of the implant would be a couple of thousand dollars. This meant that the benefits of this enhancement would only be enjoyed by a wealthy few, thus widening the gap between the rich and poor.
With more and more brain-machine interface (systems that acquire and analyze brain signals) companies, like Neurable and MindX, entering the space, brain enhancements are not going to slow down in the future. In fact, the sector is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12.43%, reaching US$283 million by 2025. While the sector does indeed have its fair share of issues, it is important to note that scientific progress, on the whole, is a positive step towards societal growth. These issues simply highlight that progress should be made with ethics in mind. As the sector continues to grow, hopefully, government action would put pressure on companies to follow strict ethical frameworks when developing intrusive technologies.
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