Fall 2013: Neuroethics

Neuroethics Project at UW

In a recent UW Press release, two faculty members demonstrated the possibility of a brain-to-brain interface. An electrical engineer imagined moving his finger on a keyboard, and across campus, his friend's finger moved accordingly. How is that possible? The engineer wore a skull cap with multiple recording electrodes. A computer algorithm was trained to recognize his motor intention, which it copied and sent via the internet to the skull cap of his friend across campus. As the signal for the motor intention was received, it stimulated the corresponding motor activity, lifting the friend's finger. What might we say, ethically speaking, about this new capacity?

The UW neuroethics team is exploring this new territory through its work with the UW Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, ( CSNE). Although CSNE is more interested in developing brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that would restore or provide control to individuals with a variety of sensory or motor disabilities, this experiment provides an example of the ways that neural engineers are developing complex means of enabling direct communication between machines and nervous systems. Philosophy professor Sara Goering has been involved with the CSNE for nearly two years, guiding its ethics thrust. Her team includes affiliate assistant professor Eran Klein, an MD/PhD who trained in bioethics at Georgetown University and practices as a neurologist at the Oregon Health Sciences University and VA Hospital. Three UW graduate student research assistants are also on the team, Matthew Sample and Tim Brown in Philosophy, and Anjali Truitt in Public Health Genetics.

The team has conducted extensive literature reviews, interviewed CSNE-funded principal investigators about their take on ethical concerns related to their projects, and is currently finishing an overview paper that explores how ethical issues such as identity, privacy, authority, normality and moral/legal responsibility are intertwined with neural technologies. The ethics group has emphasized the importance of including end-user perspectives from people with disabilities in the research and development process, as a way to ensure that products intended to benefit them actually address their needs and concerns. This year, the team will conduct a focus group study with individuals with spinal cord injury to explore potential end-user concerns about technologies such as BCI-controlled "smart" prosthetics, human exoskeletons, and spinal microstimulation, with the aim of returning those findings to CSNE scientists and engineers.

In November, Tim Brown and Eran Klein represented the group at a meeting of the International Society for Neuroethics, and Sara Goering is putting together a visit this spring to the CSNE's international partner at the University of Tokyo. Two NSF grants focused on ethics issues in neural engineering are currently in development – one on ethics education in science and engineering, and one focused on neural engineering and human agency/identity. For more information about the neuroethics group, check out Sara Goering's brief interview about neuroethics on KUOW. The Pacific Science Center currently (through December) has an exhibit on Minds and Machines that features CSNE-related technologies. Also, watch for the Infinity Box Theater's coming productions on this year's theme, neural prosthetics.