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Neurotechnology overview: Why we need a treaty to regulate weapons controlled by … thinking

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Piece in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:


Yet, none of the international regimes or current discussions provide guidance for how people should consider the beneficial and harmful potential that neurotechnology holds, a growing area of research among scholars as militaries begin developing the technology.

Building on formative work by researchers like Jonathan Moreno, Malcolm Dando, James Giordano, and Diane DiEuliis, we talked to eight senior neurotechnologists from labs at established universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia about the risks they saw with the new technology and about who has responsibility for safely developing it. The interviews were part of a pilot project, in which participation was confidential and identifying information was removed from the data, as is usual practice in social science research.

Planners aren't thinking ahead about what sort of future BCIs can bring about, other than to make a passing mention -- "... and perhaps even brain-computer interfaces."

I found this part of the article interesting:

The N3 program is pushing for “a neural interface that enables fast, effective, and intuitive hands-free interaction with military systems by able-bodied warfighters,” according to its funding brief, and the program is sponsored at approximately $120 million over four years. But DARPA also funds many other programs, as do military research and development units in other countries. These various programs are expanding the reach of neurotechnologies into military intelligence gathering, image analysis, and threat and deception detection, as well as developing technology to manipulate emotional states and to incapacitate adversaries.

The technologists we spoke to talked about the “capabilities race” they saw developing within countries and internationally, and that “technological supremacy” was at the forefront of many researchers’ minds. Despite this, none of the six technologists who had received DARPA funding believed their scientific work was being developed for military application. The other two neurotechnologists we talked to said they would refuse military funding on the grounds that they did not promote warfare and that such funding may instigate political tensions within their labs—echoing the mixed perspectives on defense dollars from the synthetic biology field.


The pursuit of private capital led two of the neurotechnologists we spoke with to move to Silicon Valley in California, a place where, as one of them said, “You don’t even have to explain it.” Half of the people we talked to had spinout companies, separate from their university research. These ventures may promote benefits by creating wider access to neurotechnology, but they also create privacy and other ethical dilemmas separate from concerns about whether a technology could be weaponized or not. For instance, as private companies potentially become gatekeepers of large amounts of personal brain data, they could choose to monetize it.

How can scientists and institutions account for the potential of misuse inherent in the development of neurotechnology? “Boundaries are not always so obvious when people are crossing them,” one of the technologists we spoke to said. “It is only in hindsight that people think, ‘yeah this is bad.’” Different people have different boundaries. Perceptions of beneficial technology can vary, too.

Sounds like not enough of these researchers have given much thought about how it can be misused.  They probably don't even realize there is a "capabilities race" as one of the people said, with countries like China, in the neurotech field.

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