Protect our brain

I’m not sure Elon Musk is welcome in Santiago. The iconic head of Tesla, and recently Twitter, is also the creator of the company Neuralink (1) which aims to develop a direct connection between the human brain and computers, thanks to implants placed in the cortex. First of all for medical use, to treat serious neurological disorders, Elon Musk does not hide the fact that he also has the ambition to implant chips in the human brain in order to provide the body with additional capabilities worthy of a computer.

Would you connect your brain?

For now, only the sow Gertrude (2) had the “honor” of experimenting with this brain-machine interface (BCI), worthy of a passable work of science fiction. Thanks to the 8-millimeter chip inserted in her brain, scientists were able to observe the animal’s neural activity depending on whether Gertrude was feeding, moving, or even sleeping. With these first tests performed on guinea pigs, the founder of Neuralink is already dreaming of the next step: obtaining permits to implant chips in the brains of human volunteers. Once that is done, they could ” use a smartphone with the mind faster than with the thumbs(3) ”. Needless to say, the consequences of this idea of ​​a “man-machine” connection impact our deepest ethical, philosophical, and moral convictions, beginning with the simple utterance of these few common sense questions: who will own the resulting data. of our brain, our thoughts, even our dreams? For what purposes could these technologies be used? So what new inequalities could they create? Abyssal questions …

Modification of article 19 of the Constitution of Chile

It is in this context, where techno-reality goes beyond science fiction, that the former President of the Republic of Chile, Sebastián Piñera (the recent elections of March 2022 have removed him from office) took the initiative to propose and pass a law, then amend its country’s Constitution legislating on “neurodights” (neurodights) or rights of the brain. The constitutional reform was enacted on October 14 and the addition of a new paragraph of a few lines in Article 19.4 is enough to make Chile the pioneer in the protection of “brain rights” in state that “Scientific and technological development is at the service of people and must be done with respect for life and physical and mental integrity. The law regulates the requirements, conditions and restrictions of its use on people, and must especially protect brain activity, as well as the information derived from it.(5) ”.

Protect yourself from “brain piracy”

In its preparatory work, the Chilean Senate detailed what is meant by “inalienable neurodights.” In this case, he tried to establish and detail three conditions for the preservation of individuals who would have been subjected to a possible “brain piracy” (brain piracy) as soon as a machine has been connected, consciously or not, to its brain: 1 / affirm the preservation of data of the human mind to prevent trafficking, 2 / frame the role of “neuroalgorithms” and 3 / limit the writing abilities in the brain (6). It’s like reading the script for director Christopher Nolan’s film, “Inception,” which includes the ability to read dreams and record ideas in people’s brains.

Connected Brain: Myth or Reality?

In the face of Elon Musk, who does not hesitate to pass the tender, proclaiming that we are close to a kind of singularity that unites men and machines, we must be wary of thunderous and rapid announcements, on the one hand, to raise excessive expectations among patients. with neurological pathologies and, on the other hand, keeping the myth of a machine connected to our brain capable of probing our brain depths. Reading the scientific literature on this subject establishes a bit of a record (7).

In 2014, European scientists published an open letter (8) to the European Union calling for an urgent reorientation of the “Human Brain Project (9)” which aims, by 2024, to simulate the functioning of the human brain thanks to a supercomputer that would provide information capable of helping to develop new medical therapies to cure neurological diseases. For these scientists, it will take much more than a machine, however powerful, to simulate the behavior of an entire brain. For the cortex alone (the upper part of the brain), there are billions of neurons, each of which can connect to 10,000 others through four or ten different chemical messages. And in addition to the cortex, we need to add the other areas of the brain (cerebellum, limbic system, etc.) that also interact with each other. This open letter from scientists has borne fruit since the “Human Brain Project” was reshaped, and the utopia of a connected human future has faded into the background in favor of neurological research.

Ethics of Neurotechnology

In Europe, the United States or Asia, many neuroscience research programs are underway and drain very large budgets. Because of its objects, which sometimes limit mental manipulation and brain control, the only limit to set is ethics.

At the moment, there is not (yet) a global charter that states would agree to abide by, like many international treaties on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

However, the major future ethical standards to be respected are known: first, the confidentiality and consent of the data collected. Then, the preservation of identity and, in this, the non-alteration of our ability to choose our actions (this principle refers to the idea that neural implants could influence our cognitive, emotional effects, even in our own personality).

And finally, master the problematic area of ​​cognitive augmentation. Here, it would be a question of limiting what neurotechnologies could bring in terms of improving cognitive performance in order to achieve this artificially “augmented” human.

So many eminently ethical safeguards designed to prevent Dr. Strangelove will one day open the Pandora’s box and make “neuro-charlatanism” the norm. If so, all you have to do is cross the Atlantic to Santiago.

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NOTES

1 https://neuralink.com/

2 https://siecledigital.fr/2020/09/02/neuralink-teste-son-implant-neuronal-sur-des-porcs/

3 https://medium.com/geekculture/how-elon-musks-neuralink-could-disrupt-the-smartphone-industry-1b18d4a583d2

4 https://www.senado.cl/proteccion-de-los-neuroderechos-a-un-paso-de-pasar-a-segundo-tramite

5https: //www.bcn.cl/leychile/navegar? IdNorma = 1166983 & idParte = 10278855 & idVersion = 2021-10-25

6 Bruno Patino Storm in the pot, Ed Grasset 2022

7 To read: The new frontiers of the brain, special issue of Le Point

8 https://www.science.org/content/article/updated-european-neuroscientists-revolt-against-eus-human-brain-project

9 https://www.humanbrainproject.eu/en/