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Neurorights: Do our brains need to be protected by legislation?

Guilherme Wood interview on Neurorights: image of a hand, that manipulates the mind of another person, isolated and toned

Interview with Prof. Guilherme Wood on the Neurorights

Today we stand on the threshold of a new revolution: neurotechnology – devices and procedures that seek to access, assess, emulate and act on neural systems – is booming. Driven by new developments in artificial intelligence, they can be used for medical purposes, such as helping paralysed people to walk again, but also to stimulate the brain and enhance memory, or to measure brain activity for gaming or learning. As we speak, research labs are even working towards interfacing our thoughts with a computer.

This year’s UNESCO report on neurotechnology even warns, ‘Neurotechnology’s developments hold profound implications for human identity, autonomy, privacy, behavior, and well-being, i.e. the very essence of what it means to be human’. Do we need legislation to protect our brains?

On 16 November 2023, the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) will hold a workshop entitled ‘Neurotechnology and neurorights – Privacy’s last frontier‘. We spoke with one of the speakers, Guilherme Maia de Oliveira Wood. He is a psychologist and professor of neuropsychology and neuroimaging at the University of Graz (Austria).

What risks do new (neuro-) technologies pose?

Guilherme Wood: Technologies using artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) can be used to manipulate us. Think of disinformation and deep fakes for example. Especially when they have access to our brain, they have the potential to undermine people’s individual choices, citizenship, freedom, personality and privacy. Digital technologies introduce noise and mediation to communication and exacerbate the individual desire for personalisation and customisation. They should not replace face-to-face communication, but should represent a complementary alternative.

Massive reliance on virtual communication technologies such as VR can blur the border between desire and reality and contribute to isolating individuals even more. Because digital technologies are becoming ubiquitous, their internal structure generates normative values for the rest of society. This is dangerous because technologies are not made to preserve human values but to preserve and reproduce themselves and the interests of their creators.

And when the bonds of solidarity break, societies can easily collapse and are more susceptible to attacks.

In layman’s terms, what are neurorights? Why are they needed and what makes them so important, in your opinion?

Guilherme Wood: Neurorights are laws protecting the central nervous system of individuals from cognitive and emotional manipulation committed with the help of AI. Neurorights are based on fundamental human rights, but must go beyond them to effectively protect the right to have a personality, the right to have a private sphere, to have a sense of agency, among other topics.

Neurorights should protect citizens from threats to their autonomy and freedom of thought posed by new technologies.

These rights are relevant when contact is established with specific technologies that are able to decode and influence neural activity. These interactions should be regulated in different contexts such as entertainment, work and education. Neurorights may also apply to politics, terrorism and issues of national security and all possible criminal acts involving access to and manipulation of the central nervous system of others (also known as neurocrime).

I see domains in which regulation could promote equality of access to neurotechnologies and establishes mechanisms to assist in their use for social purposes. In other domains, boundaries may be established in access to neurotechnologies in order to protect citizens.

Finally, neurorights should also stipulate punishment for violations of these norms and establish efficient mechanisms to promote social and dignifying uses of AI and neurotechnologies.

What makes neurorights different from other rights? Are neurorights similar to fundamental human rights?

Guilherme Wood: They are different from other rights because the kind of threat they address is very new and uniquely personal and intimate. The high degree of intimacy established between the central nervous system and neurotechnologies able to register its activity and influence its operation has never been so great. It has never required as much legal and ethical attention as it does now.

Are you familiar with the Neurorights Foundation? If so, what do you think about their approach and goal of protecting human rights from the potential misuse or abuse of neurotechnology?

Guilherme Wood: I am aware of their activities and I praise their efforts to establish the ethical, legal, societal and scientific principles to guarantee the preservation of basic rights in the face of modern neurotechnologies. One should be highly concerned about representatives of ideological movements such as transhumanism directly or indirectly questioning or relativising human dignity. They seem to have strong reasons to influence discussions on neurorights and to represent the rights of technologies to the detriment of human rights, if necessary.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted on 16 December 1966 mentions in Article 12 ‘the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’. How can we measure or assess mental well-being?

Guilherme Wood: Beyond the absence of disease, the definition of well-being is rather vague as it contains all aspects of social, cultural, physical and mental activities, which act in concert to produce a certain degree of well-being. Given its complexity and degree of subjectivity, assessment of well-being can only be approximate and relies among other things on self-reporting.

Beyond that, the extent and strength of the social network of each person, their bonds of solidarity and the meaningful activities they take part in throughout their lives are an excellent measure of well-being. The social use of goods and social mechanisms of compensation for the weaker members of society also help to promote well-being throughout society and should be considered in discussions about neurorights.

Is it possible to regulate by law one’s physiological state (well-being), consciousness and state of embodiment?

Guilherme Wood: It is definitely possible to regulate physiological states, consciousness and states of embodiment by law. Most of us refrain from urinating in public places, stay awake while driving and may forget a headache during an important conversation with the boss. The challenge posed by new neurotechnologies refers to the level of control that external devices may, should and can have over our central nervous system. The more invasive the neurotechnology, the more precisely it can target aspects of our mental life and behaviour.

These technologies require much stricter regulations than non-invasive technologies, but both are able to manipulate our mental state and interfere with our self-determination. Because of their ubiquity, even non-invasive techniques can still be quite precise in their effects and this is why more discussion on neurorights is absolutely necessary.

Useful link:
STOA workshop: ‘Neurotechnology and neurorights – Privacy’s last frontier’

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