Neurotechnology – testing the limits of intelligence, ethics and the law

Amidst all the discussion regarding generative AI brought on by the release of ChatGPT and its cousins, another intelligence-based technology may well have an even more profound impact on human life.

Like AI, neurotechnology is a field of research which has existed for many decades, and which has also made some fundamental leaps forward in this decade. Chief among these have been breakthroughs in the use of electronic sensors to detect and decode human thoughts, opening new possibilities for direct control and communication with digital systems, and unleashing a plethora of moral and ethical considerations.

For example, in 2021 researchers demonstrated a system which implanted neurotechnology into a person who was paralysed and non-verbal, and which enabled them to use this brain control interface (BCI) technology to communicate at a rate of 18 words per minute with up to 94 per cent accuracy.

Such technology holds enormous promise through providing new communication options to those who can’t speak, or command and control capabilities to those with limited physical ability, or perhaps one day to give sight to the sightless. This technology can also enable a range of sensations in remote communications, such as bringing a sense of touch or smell to interactions within virtual worlds.

Importantly, these are not possibilities of a distant future – some are being tested today – and as interest and funding grow, so too will the speed of the breakthroughs.

But while the underlying technology promises incredible benefits, it is not hard to imagine less savoury use cases, such as the delivery or novel forms of coercion, or for extracting information and confessions from alleged criminals or political dissidents.

The rapid emergence of neurotechnology and its implications for ethics and the law was the key focus of a world first seminar hosted by Jewelrock in Sydney in December 2022 and supported by the law firm Baker McKenzie. During the session numerous global experts on neurotechnology discussed recent breakthroughs and the implications, highlighting the enormous work required to understand and prepare for the future that neurotechnology will deliver.

A second seminar is now planned, as part of a series that will continue through the year and into 2024.

I was fortunate to be invited to write the official report for the event, which you can find by clicking here.

While the true impact of neurotechnology is hard to fathom, one thing is clear – while artificial intelligence may have the spotlight today, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to technology’s impact on human intelligence.