Neurotechnology is one of the hottest areas of engineering, and the technological achievements sound miraculous: Paralyzed people have controlled robotic limbs and computer cursors with their brains, while blind people are receiving eye implants that send signals to their brains’ visual centers. Researchers are figuring out how to make better implantable devices and scalp electrodes to record brain signals or to send electricity into the brain to change the way it functions.
While many of these systems are intended to help people with serious disabilities or illnesses, there’s growing interest in using neurotech to augment the abilities of everyday people. Companies like Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink are developing consumer devices that may be used for brain-based communication, while some startups are exploring applications in entertainment. But what are the ethical implications of medding with our brains? And how far will we take it?
Anders Sandberg is “not technically a philosopher,” he tells IEEE Spectrum, although it is his job to think deeply about technological utopias and dystopias, the future of AI, and the possible consequences of human enhancement via genetic tweaks or implanted devices. In fact, he has a PhD in computational neuroscience. So who better to consult regarding the ethics of neurotech and brain enhancement?
Sandberg works as a senior research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute (which is helmed by Nick Bostrom, a leading AI scholar and author of the book Superintelligence that explores the AI threat). In a wide-ranging phone interview with Spectrum, Sandberg discussed today’s state-of-the-art neurotech, whether it will ever see widespread adoption, and how it could reshape society.