How neuroethics can advance innovations for positive social impact

By Ankita Moss and Karen Rommelfanger | 29 March 2021
World Economic Forum

(Image by RAEng_Publications from Pixabay)
  • Neurotech innovators often conflate neuroethics with legal compliance and risk mitigation.
  • But new research highlights how neuroethical design can be a powerful tool to solve societal problems.
  • We outline three solutions for innovators and explain how ethics can easily be aligned with design.

For centuries, the inner workings of the brain and human mind have conjured great imagination and allure; neuroscience has promised insights into one of the most prized features of human life, the cognitive experience.

Today, neuroscience has edged into territories once thought only to inhabit the realms of science fiction. Daily reports include stories ranging from jaw-dropping to tear-jerking, including research on head transplants, techniques that demonstrate restoration of brain function in brains of pigs six hours after their death, the potential of brain imaging to be used for lie detection (or even testimony) in the courtroom, and given hope for the possibility of restoring a damaged memory or augmenting a healthy, intact one.

Mapping brain circuitry has also paved the way for brain computer interface (BCI) technology, which promises to help restore or revive the brain and body. New abilities to read and write information into the brain via recording and stimulation technologies have enormous potential for improving quality of life for those sick and suffering. Today’s brain interfaces have been used to connect multiple animal and human brains and may even be able to restore movement after years of paralysis. Consumers even beyond the hospital are eager to use safer and smaller versions of the tech for themselves for work, exercise, and sharpening mental acuity.

But interfacing with the brain can feel deeply and exceptionally personal – the brain encodes our experience and is a critical site for decision-making. We are seeing a new flavour of messy ethical concerns surfacing issues of autonomy, mental privacy, and the fragility of foundational features of identity, all of which were once thought to be sacred, impenetrable, and immutable.

Cutting-edge neuroscience requires cutting-edge ethics that can keep pace with the rapid evolution of neuroscience and neurotechnologies.

The pandemic has made crystal clear just how critical ethics is to determining action in the face of evolving scientific information. Neuroethics, which explores and analyzes the ethical, legal, and social implications of neuroscience might just be one of the most essential tools to advance and accelerate the most impactful neuroscience.

The commercialization of BCI technology, for example, has been coupled with the rise of alternative non-invasive approaches such as headsets for meditation or performance enhancement. Such non-invasive devices can be scalable to the public and relatively easy to use. But the risk-benefit calculus drastically changes in the commercial realm: when potential user harm is hedged against a promise of an entertainment and/or subtle “wellness” improvement in an otherwise “healthy” individual. This promise, along with the tensions and neurohype in this space are exemplified by projects like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Elon Musk’s Neuralink is not the first neurotech startup to promise commercial use BCI, and it will not be the last.

What our research reveals

In our lab, the Neuroethics and Neurotech Innovation Collaboratory led by Global Neuroethics co-chair and NIH BRAIN Initiative Neuroethics member Dr. Karen Rommelfanger, we conducted one-one interviews with over 20 international neurotech innovators, discussing value conflicts in areas from return on investment (ROI), to data privacy, to societal implications, to maximizing positive the impact of neurotechnology.

We found that neuro-innovators are generally aware of the sensitive nature of brain research and interventions; the powerful possibilities of brain technologies are a driving force for innovators. Neurotech innovators believe that neuroscience is poised to generate the highest societally beneficial impact. But naturally, they are deeply concerned with issues related to privacy, access, and ownership, and often have strong beliefs about using science to empower societies by allowing individuals to overcome hardship and reach their full potential. However, while they clearly are interested in and concerned about neuroethical issues, they aren’t typically familiar with or aware that such a field exists.

A reflection of this orientation is that they often had difficulty seeing the full scope of what ethics could offer. Instead “ethics” was seen narrowly as red tape, often at odds with return on investment. Ethics was also misunderstood as solely compliance that could be handled by legal teams. In our research, it was clear that innovators want incentives for integrating ethics within the innovation process, not punitive measures for incorporating ethics. By conflating ethics with compliance, companies are missing opportunities. Stuck relying on legal teams who do not have the tools to identify and surface biases, assumptions, and value conflicts, neurotech innovators had not yet been introduced to the notion that, by integrating a neuroethics strategy into innovation life cycles, they could actually advance and accelerate high impact neurotechnologies.

Overall, neurotech innovators should not be mistaken as only concerned about money and fast innovation. But there are numerous missed opportunities for powerful societal impact by failing to orient their conversations around ethics in more expansive ways, beyond risk mitigation.

We suggest three solutions for neuroethically aligned neurotech design.

1. Develop an actionable neuroethics strategy

This is also a call to think of ethics beyond risk mitigation and toward social impact. A good strategy could fit in the entire innovation life cycle from the grassroots idea and prototype phase to ethical marketing for tech deployment. There is a small, but substantial global community of neuroethics experts. There are many individuals who can help advise in less formal to formal ways. One of the authors established the first-of-its kind neurotech ethics strategy and consulting firm. Neurotech innovators and ethicists need to come together to collaborate and create these paths forward. When done intentionally, neuroethics can help advance and accelerate the most societally impactful neurotech by uncovering the exponential benefits of bringing ethically-oriented innovation to market.

2. Raise awareness with impact investors

A neuroethics mindset can facilitate return on investments (ROI) both financially and toward recognizing that neurotech’s grand engineering challenges are ones that go hand in hand with addressing socio-ethical ones. We can learn for example, from wireless communication tech being engineered to incorporate privacy safeguards. In our research, we learned that innovators often feel torn about personal values and the timeline for ROI. While many believed end users should own their data, the collected data were immediately valuable, even more so than the tech interfaces they were developing. The financial pressure is not conducive to protecting the privacy of end-users. What if business proposals to investors could be reoriented toward also protecting end-user data, particularly neurodata? This orientation would ease the ethical tensions neurotech innovators face and also protect end-user privacy.

3. Learn to navigate proactively, not reactively

This is where neuroethics capacity building and creating cultures of ethical inquiry can help. Much of the reported value of neuroethics in the neurotech innovation process comes from the uncertainty neuro-entrepreneurs feel toward their decisions, especially those with presently undeterminable consequences. This uncertainty derives from the unpredictability of a future influenced by neurotechnology. To neuro-entrepreneurs, the brain is a new and largely undiscovered frontier. By being proactive through establishing a culture of neuroethics, each member of the company can be ethically aware and attuned to value conflicts, enabled to act quickly, and collectively mobilized to solve issues before they become larger ones. Innovators are acutely aware that nothing will tank their work faster than creating a tech that doesn’t align with end-user values. Some tech cultures like Apple and Google to some extent have already found ways to enculturate their communities with ethics. They’ve not only used a reputation of trust to the benefit of maintaining their consumer-base, but also to recruit the best talent. We’ve also seen an explosion of attention for AI ethics, but our neurotech ecosystem still is lagging with neuroethics integration.

What’s needed now is greater collaboration

Based on our research, there is a clear call to action for the leadership of neurotech companies and startups to work with neurotech-ethicists and neuroethicists more broadly. This point was recently reinforced in a session of the 2020 International Neuroethics Society Conference featuring Facebook’s Mark Chevillet and Nia Therapeutics’ Dan Rizzuto. Researchers and keynote Ruha Benjamin from Princeton participating in the conference also pointed out a need to be mindful of perpetuating bias, such as those resulting in racial discrimination inherent in unthoughtful tech design. Neuroethicists can collaboratively help identify these ethical blindspots.

We also recognize that the neuroethics community has failed to sufficiently connect with our private sector neuroscientists, neurotech innovators, and neuro-entrepreneurs. We’re working on building community and a shared vocabulary between neuroethicists and neurotech innovators. As we continue to identify neuroethical pain points, we’ll begin mapping bottlenecks and roadblocks when aligning neuroethics with the neuro-innovation process.

If there’s one consistent thread about humans, it’s that they aren’t just interested in survival; instead they are constantly seeking to improve themselves as individuals and innovate for a greater collective society. We believe neuroethics is the key to innovating in the neurotech ecosystem, and we’re ready to help.

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