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Let’s not elevate brain tech over our humanity

Technology and Human Rights
A computer chip with the image of a brain on it.

This opinion piece by Human Rights Commissioner, Lorraine Finlay, appeared in The Australian on Friday, 23 February 2024. 

Elon Musk recently announced Neuralink’s first successful brain computer interface (BCI) implantation in a human being. The BCI implant is called Telepathy, and allows the user to control digital devices with their thoughts alone. Initial trials aim to enable people with quadriplegia to mentally control computers.   

Neuralink is not the only neurotechnology company making rapid advancements. Australian company Synchron announced its first human BCI implantation in July 2022. 

This emerging race between neurotechnology companies demands our close attention, as these innovations could improve lives and help us better understand the human mind. But there are also critical ethical and human rights considerations, since some technologies could potentially enable outside access to a person’s innermost thoughts, and raise questions about whether we have the right to control our own minds. 

Neurotechnology has been used in medicine for some time – for example, to assist people with Parkinson’s disease to regain mobility. A brain implant interfacing with special glasses recently enabled a woman in Spain who had been completely blind for over 16 years to temporarily regain enough sight to identify lines, shapes and letters. Cochlear implants are a surgically implanted neuroprosthesis, and have been used to restore functional hearing to an estimated 1 million people worldwide.

Neuralink says its mission is ‘to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow’. The potential for neurotechnology to improve the quality of life for people with a wide range of disabilities and medical conditions is extraordinary - but it comes with serious risks. 

If technology companies adopt the ‘move fast and break things’ approach championed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg,  they risk elevating technology over humanity and crossing ethical thresholds without properly understanding the full implications.

Take the example of researchers from Shanghai Jiao Tong University who have found a way to ‘connect’ a human brain to a cockroach’s – allowing the human to control the movement of the cockroach using just their thoughts. 

These neurotechnology breakthroughs read like science fiction, but they will have very real impacts on human rights if not developed and deployed responsibly. For this reason, the Australian Human Rights Commission will publish a background paper next month focusing on the human rights implications of neurotechnology. 

The human rights at stake include the right to privacy, freedom of thought, and the right to equality and non-discrimination. Emerging technologies will challenge these in new and serious ways.

Three out of five Australians have said that protecting personal information is a major concern in their lives. In recent years this concern has revolved around online privacy and the risk of data breaches. Neurotechnologies heighten the risk to privacy by blurring the boundary between a person’s external and internal worlds, with personal thoughts potentially becoming collectable, analysable and monetised. 

Feeling tired? Neurotechnologies could monitor your melatonin levels and show you ads suggesting you buy a Coke to feel refreshed. Hungry? Recommender systems could direct you to the closest McDonald’s before your stomach has even rumbled. 

Beyond intrusive marketing, there is also the risk of intrusive surveillance. New ‘right to disconnect’ laws have just been passed for workers in Australia, but neurotechnology could potentially enable your boss to monitor your attention span during working hours. Wearable headbands that monitor brainwaves have already been trialled on primary school children in China. They assess a child’s level of concentration and send results to teachers and parents.

Governments and large companies, such as Neuralink, could end up having access to the most personal form of data – our thoughts and feelings. 

There is a pressing need to ensure that proper safeguards are in place to protect human rights. It is unlikely that our existing laws will be enough to deal with the impacts of neurotechnology. We need to anticipate the evolution of neurotechnologies and strengthen the regulatory framework so that it can respond to ethical concerns before it is too late. 

Neurotechnologies have the potential to be enormously beneficial for many people, and we should encourage their development. However, they must be developed and deployed with appropriate regulation and legislative safeguards in place. 

When individuals, such as Musk, have longer-term goals for neurotechnology which involve ‘human-AI symbiosis’, we must ensure that our government and regulators prioritise human rights. Humanity always needs to be placed above technology.

Published in The Australian
Lorraine finlay

Lorraine Finlay, Australian Human Rights Commissioner

Technology and Human Rights