Ethical Assessment of Implantable Brain Chips
My purpose is to initiate a discussion of the ethics of implanting computer chips in the brain and to raise some initial ethical and social questions. Computer scientists predict that within the next twenty years neural interfaces will be designed that will not only increase the dynamic range of senses, but will also enhance memory and enable "cyberthink" — invisible communication with others. This technology will facilitate consistent and constant access to information when and where it is needed. The ethical evaluation in this paper focuses on issues of safely and informed consent, issues of manufacturing and scientific responsibility, anxieties about the psychological impacts of enhancing human nature, worries about possible usage in children, and most troubling, issues of privacy and autonomy. Inasmuch as this technology is fraught with perilous implications for radically changing human nature, for invasions of privacy and for governmental control of individuals, public discussion of its benefits and burdens should be initiated, and policy decisions should be made as to whether its development should be proscribed or regulated, rather than left to happenstance, experts and the vagaries of the commercial market.
The future may well involve the reality of science fiction's cyborg, persons who have developed some intimate and occasionally necessary relationship with a machine. It is likely that implantable computer chips acting as sensors, or actuators, may soon assist not only failing memory, but even bestow fluency in a new language, or enable "recognition" of previously unmet individuals. The progress already made in therapeutic devices, in prosthetics and in computer science indicate that it may well be feasible to develop direct interfaces between the brain and computers.
Worldwide there are at least three million people living with artificial implants. In particular, research on the cochlear implant and retinal vision have furthered the development of interfaces between neural tissues and silicon substrate micro probes. The cochlear implant, which directly stimulates the auditory nerve, enables over 10,000 totally deaf people to hear sound; the retinal implantable chip for prosthetic vision may restore vision to the blind. Research on prosthetic vision has proceeded along two paths: 1) retinal implants, which avoid brain surgery and link a camera in eyeglass frames via laser diodes to a healthy optic nerve and nerves to the retina, and 2) cortical implants, which require brain surgery and the pneumatic insertion of electrodesinto the brain to penetrate the visual cortex and produce highly localized stimulation.