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human brain - ethics of digital transformation

Technology is transforming our most ancient computers

Our attention is fixed on what’s happening in the world of digital innovation. But while the latest Facebook scandal or the challenges of digital transformation hog headlines, some of the most profound advances in technology, are not happening on our phones or our PCs.  

They’re happening in the most ancient computer we know of – our brains. 

I recently spent a week at Oxford University, studying Neuroethics under Professor Julian Savulescu – a remarkable Australian who holds the university’s Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics. It turns out that the frontiers of neuroscience are a rollercoaster ride of medical opportunities and ethical dilemmas. Questions that came up included:

  • At what point do you stop being you if your brain is intervened with to the point where it changes your personality and sense of self?  
  • What is the capacity for someone in a coma to make decisions about their own care, if they can answer yes/no questions using an MRI machine despite being in an a vegetative state? 
  • Should neurostimulation be considered to be like doping and be banned from elite sports?  
  • Would it be ok to stimulate or inhibit love as a therapeutic response to relationship breakdowns or domestic violence?

These questions may seem either deeply philosophical or even like science fiction, but in fact they are live dilemmas where the neurotechnology described is either on the cusp of being real-world, or is actively being used in clinical or even consumer settings.

Transcranial stimulation - ethics of neurotechnology
Transcranial stimulation - The therapy is used for a variety of medical reasons and can have a measurable positive impact on conditions like depression and obsessive compulsive disorder

Zapping your brain for under $200

Consider transcranial stimulation. The technology involves using either magnetic fields or electric currents to stimulate or quieten parts of the brain. It’s non-invasive and it’s painless. Generally, it involves fitting electrodes or electromagnetic coils to targeted parts of your scalp – no surgery involved.

The therapy is used for a variety of medical reasons and can have a measurable positive impact on conditions like depression and obsessive compulsive disorder – conditions that sometimes either defy other treatments, or where alternative treatments have onerous side effects.  

At Oxford, Roi Cohen Kadosh, a world-leading researcher in the use of these types of therapies has run studies looking at their use in not simply treating medical conditions, but enhancing cognition. His studies have shown that, in certain circumstances and treatment protocols, transcranial stimulation can increase performance in areas such as maths and reaction time.  

While he is clear that the results are more complicated than that (and his papers on the promise of these technologies are well worth reading), the promise of cognitive enhancement has already spawned a range of consumer grade products you can place on your head to achieve a brain boost – with sleek names like thync and and seductive designs that make one think of an Audi or an iPhone.

It’s here – but the regulatory environment isn’t

In Australia, there are already arguments being made for a Medicare item number to be assigned to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation as a therapy for major depressive disorder (and the science is looking pretty compelling).  

More worryingly, right now, you can go to Amazon and buy a consumer Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation headset for under $200, with the hope of improving your maths prowess or your computer gaming performance just enough to get an edge.

The questions that confront governments are questions of informed consent, consumer protection, how regulation stays ahead of innovation and where use of such products should be prohibited (elite sports is one obvious troubling area – but what about a surgeon operating with a headset on?).  

What about data collection – how sensitive is one’s use of such technologies, and what is the value of usage patterns when put together with other behavioural or geospatial information? What happens when an operator pays you to wear a device and have it surreptitiously auto-activate when certain types of adverts come on the screen?

In many ways, the regulatory challenge of neurotechnology is not entirely dissimilar from that of other digital technologies. The same old themes of mental health impact, privacy, consent, consumer protection and appropriateness of use come into play.  

And in other promising/worrying areas of innovation – like gene editing or consumer DNA testing – the same ethical challenges are likely to dominate the conversation as awarenesss becomes more mainstream. Always, the technology is working ahead of the ethical conversation. You see this pattern again and again, and it’s not slowing down. These are some of the kinds of questions and issues that we grapple with for clients at ThinkPlace. They also form part of the syllabus in education course we run like The Ethics Of Digital Transformation.  

This pattern is just…everywhere

During the same trip, I attended an edge-of-the-field wearables expo with a bias towards digital health. While I was there, I found many examples of technology being developed with significant ethical implications but where any ethics discussion was far from front and centre.

For example:

  • A VR simulation tool to augment traditional therapies and help people manage pain or discomfort
  • A sensor mesh tool that took continuous patient readings in hospital or home-based care settings and used artificial intelligence to reduce their whole complex health status to a single line graph
  • An occupational health and safety system that used multiple sensors to track workers and alert them or management if they may be at risk of injury.

I asked about the ethical considerations for these and many other innovations. Each time, with a few exceptions, the exhibitors recited a brief, rehearsed nod towards ethical design, and then got back to the seductive topic of their technology and what it could do. It’s not because any of them have a malignant intent… but it is concerning.  

The challenge for government is taking the long view

On my last day in Oxford, I caught up with eminent thinker and head of the Oxford Internet Institute, Professor Luciano Flioridi. In a conversation that is still resonating with me, we discussed his perspective that the world as undergoing a unique, once-in-history shift from an analogue-based to a digital-based world, and that the types of decisions we make in this transition time set important precedents for society.

In many ways, this sets the challenge for regulators. Across all of the technology-enabled transformation we’re seeing, on phones, in brains and DNA, on our wrists and even behind the curtain in the case of AI, there are a host of decisions we need to make about what will make society better, fairer, more efficient and kinder.  

With each decision, we create momentum.  

The ultimate challenge for government is about how we know where that momentum will take us as we go deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, and what will be waiting for us when we emerge.  



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