Neuroethical Dilemmas of Pager the Monkey’s Neuralink Brain Implant: Age-Old Ethics for New-Age Artificial Intelligence

Post by Stephanie Quon

In April 2021, Neuralink released a video of Pager, a macaque monkey, playing a computer pong game with their brain [1]. The N1 Link, a fully-implanted neural recording and data transmission device with 1024 electrodes, allowed Pager to play pong by using patterns of their neural activity to model the movements of a computer cursor [2]. There are many ethical considerations associated with brain-computer interfaces and their use with animals, such as physical harm and psychological distress [3]. Here, we will focus more generally on the ethical challenges of the brain-computer interfaces Neuralink is developing and the global attention that Pager has drawn to neuroethics.

Elon Musk founded Neuralink in 2016 with the mission of merging humanity with artificial intelligence. Neuralink aims to achieve this through designing and building wireless, implantable brain-computer interfaces to help improve treatments for neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia [4]. As shown by Pager’s ability to play a game using their mind only, Neuralink is quickly progressing closer to its goal of enhancing brain function by integrating artificial processing [4].

The ongoing development of neurotechnology is pulling some key neuroethics topics into the limelight [5]. As Neuralink’s video of Pager gained popularity online, more and more individuals began expressing interest in the potential implications of neurotechnology [3]. On social media platforms, people are engaging in neuroethics-related discussion threads [6], bringing increased attention and perspectives to topics often discussed in the field. Examples of topics include data privacy concerns, safety issues, and considerations around how brain technology may influence behaviour [5].

Renewed public interest in the ethical challenges of these technologies stresses the importance of ethical and socially responsible research and development [5]. One key ethical consideration is the tradeoff between potential benefits and adverse effects of neural implant devices. As the use of neurotechnology may move from remediation to enhancement in the future, this risk-benefit calculation may become more complicated and must be further scrutinized [7].

The use of brain-computer interfaces also raises questions about who owns an individual’s brain data. Important issues include who has the right to write data to implanted devices and how developers can ensure privacy and security during the use of their devices [7]. Whether or not BCIs can be developed to enhance what a person can achieve, there are already concerns around how social equity and access will continue to be impacted. Further developments will likely continue to exacerbate health inequalities, making these questions even more important to answer [3].

In the future, brain-computer interfaces may transform approaches to treating neurological conditions and even move to performance enhancement. It has been suggested that the success of these technologies may depend on multiple factors [7]. These components may include the willingness of innovators to prioritize ethical innovation drawn from interdisciplinary expertise [7], and regulations and policies that prioritize individual and societal wellbeing.

References

  1. Monkey MindPong. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsCul1sp4hQ. Accessed May 2, 2021.
  • Coin A., Mulder M., Dubljevic V. Ethical Aspects of BCI Technology: What Is the State of the Art? Philosophies 2020-09-25; 5 (31); doi:10.3390/philosophies5040031. Accessed July 27, 2021.
  • Breakthrough Technology for the Brain. Available at: neuralink.com. Accessed May 2, 2021.
  • Maynard A. D., Scragg M. The Ethical and Responsible Development and Application of Advanced Brain Machine Interfaces. Journal of Medical Internet Research 2019-10-31; 21(10): e16321. Accessed May 3, 2021.

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