Within Our Grasp: The Ethics and Risks of Neurotechnology

Aleksandra Hadzic
5 min readDec 14, 2021

Is A Future Of Mind Reading Technology Worth The Privacy Risk?

Neurotechnology is growing at a fast pace. But how much do we know about tech, and what impact will it have on our lives? Is there too much hype surrounding a technology that has yet to affect society significantly? We’re not the only ones voicing questions.

Furthermore — future technologies will bring out new challenges and opportunities, including privacy. Even people like dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, fears that technology will soon allow us to read each other’s minds. According to him, all sensations can be interpreted because of the brain’s ability to reorganize itself or neuroplasticity.

On the bright side, he also says we can use this to create new ways of seeing the world. In the future, as we learn more about the brain and begin using new technology to enhance it, we may discover unique and fascinating abilities.

Revolutionizing the way of interacting

What if you could type out a message to your partner or send an email to your boss just by thinking?

That’s the promise of a form of brain-computer interface technology that is undergoing trials in Melbourne and New York. At Tom Oxley’s company, Synchron, the technology uses brain implants to link directly with computers and bypass the body’s regular communication routes — including speech, typing and even eye movements.

The technology promises to revolutionize the way people interact with computers, allowing them to type words and send emails simply by using their thoughts. But it also raises serious questions about privacy and how we’ll defend our thoughts from prying machines.

Link to remarkable achievements

If you could read my mind, what would you find? Would it be a stream of consciousness, random images, thoughts and memories that come and go like the weather? Or would it be as clear as a summer’s day?

I have no idea. But a team of neuroscientists may have just taken us one step closer to finding out.

According to Guardian, in July this year, it became the first company in the world, ahead of competitors like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, to gain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct clinical trials of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) in humans in the US.

The technology has been tested on more than 50 people so far. Its inventors claim to have improved their original prototype “remarkably” — with a week-long training period needed for patients to control a robotic arm using their brain signals alone.

Is less really more?

In this high-tech future, there’s no need to fire up your PC or fiddle with an iPhone to check your emails. Instead, you can send a mental command to the computer to bring up your inbox, pick out the messages you want, and send them off to their recipients. Much of this is already possible. In recent years, technical advances have made it possible for people with severe physical disabilities to control computers using only their minds.

Such breakthroughs are likely to become commonplace over the next decade as more people undergo tests and procedures that involve placing electrodes inside their brains. This will allow them to control computers and record and share their experiences of particular moments — everything, such as what they ate for breakfast yesterday morning (and whether they enjoyed it).

Benefits and challenges of ethical questions around neurotechnology

The consequences of sharing neuro data preoccupy many ethicists. From Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Stephen Rainey explained that brains are central to everything we do, think, and say. On the other hand, when we have this rise of tech, there’s a rise in corporate power. This is the most crucial question of our generation — who will control the data in your head?

Tech companies are attracted by the potential to gather more information about people and make money from it. But they are also keen to stress that they do not want to follow in the footsteps of George Orwell, in which a totalitarian state uses technology to spy on its citizens and manipulate their thoughts. The outcome is dystopian, indeed…

Neuro-rights: Raising awareness among countries

So, in a world where companies can read our minds, what could go wrong? That’s the question being asked by lawmakers in the South American country of Chile.

Chile is not taking any chances on the potential risks of neurotechnology. In a world-first, in September 2021, Chilean lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment to enshrine mental integrity as a right of all citizens.

European legislators are also debating the issue of neuro-rights. The right to mental health was protected by French bioethics legislation in September this year. In the meantime, the Italian Data Protection Authority determines whether the country’s privacy laws protect mental privacy; Spain has begun work on its digital rights bill.

A non-binding recommendation on responsible innovation in neurotechnology was issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in April of this year. Australia has signed the recommendation.

Subtle technology — a potential to change everything

We’ve been conditioned to think there are things we can’t know and that these things are private. But what if we didn’t have to ask? What if our thoughts were being read — not only the individual ones we choose to express but also the ones we keep hidden even from ourselves?

It seems like a stunningly futuristic possibility, but it’s fast becoming a reality. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the brain holds an immense amount of control over our behaviour, and technology is on the cusp of understanding how to manipulate it. But what happens then? As this technology develops, we’ll soon be faced with a big philosophical question — where do we draw the line? For some, it will be easy to dismiss this as a needless exercise in ethics for the future.

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Aleksandra Hadzic

Researching AI. Merging Data Science and Digital Marketing.