When I asked Facebook about concerns around the ethics of big tech entering the brain-computer interface space, Mr. Chevillet, of Facebook Reality Labs, highlighted the transparency of its brain-reading project. “This is why we’ve talked openly about our B.C.I. research — so it can be discussed throughout the neuroethics community as we collectively explore what responsible innovation looks like in this field,” he said in an email.
Ed Cutrell, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft, which also has a B.C.I. program, emphasized the importance of treating user data carefully. “There needs to be clear sense of where that information goes,” he told me. “As we are sensing more and more about people, to what extent is that information I’m collecting about you yours?”
Some find all this talk of ethics and rights, if not irrelevant, then at least premature.
Medical scientists working to help paralyzed patients, for example, are already governed by HIPAA laws, which protect patient privacy. Any new medical technology has to go through the Food and Drug Administration approval process, which includes ethical considerations.
(Ethical quandaries still arise, though, notes Dr. Kirsch. Let’s say you want to implant a sensor array in a patient suffering from locked-in syndrome. How do you get consent to conduct surgery that might change the person’s life for the better from someone who can’t communicate?)
Leigh Hochberg, a professor of engineering at Brown University and part of the BrainGate initiative, sees the companies now piling into the brain-machine space as a boon. The field needs these companies’ dynamism — and their deep pockets, he told me. Discussions about ethics are important, “but those discussions should not at any point derail the imperative to provide restorative neurotechnologies to people who could benefit from them,” he added.
Ethicists, Dr. Jepsen told me, “must also see this: The alternative would be deciding we aren’t interested in a deeper understanding of how our minds work, curing mental disease, really understanding depression, peering inside people in comas or with Alzheimer’s, and enhancing our abilities in finding new ways to communicate.”
There’s even arguably a national security imperative to plow forward. China has its own version of BrainGate. If American companies don’t pioneer this technology, some think, Chinese companies will. “People have described this as a brain arms race,” Dr. Yuste said.
Not even Dr. Gallant, who first succeeded in translating neural activity into a moving image of what another person was seeing — and who was both elated and horrified by the exercise — thinks the Luddite approach is an option. “The only way out of the technology-driven hole we’re in is more technology and science,” he told me. “That’s just a cool fact of life.”
Moises Velasquez-Manoff, the author of “An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases,” is a contributing opinion writer.
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