Monday, November 11, 2013

Electroceuticals and Mind Control

“Electroceuticals”, or therapies utilising electricity, are nothing new and range from the widely accepted defibrillator/ pace makers to the more controversial electric shock therapies like ECT sometimes employed to treat severe depression.
But a recent article in Nature argues that these are just a small, crude sample of what electroceuticals may be able to offer in the future. Universities and pharmaceutical companies are researching a wide range of therapies based around electrical stimulation, promising benefits (in the long term) as diverse as mind-controlled prosthetic limbs to a treatment for anorexia. Transcranial Electric Stimulation (TES) is delivering some promising results in depression and treatment of learning disabilities.
Not only is the research potential there, but it appears that the funding is too. Nature report that GlaxoSmithKline are funding 40 researchers to pursue research in this area, amongst other initiatives to kick start electroceutical development. And earlier this year, the US invested $110 million from 2014’s budget for the “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative”. At the same time, over in Europe, work has commenced on a 10 year, billion pound ‘Human Brain Project, bringing together 135 institutions to try to map parts of the human brain via computer simulations.
We may be starting out on the track for the “holy grail” of neuroscience: strategic control of single neuronal activity. This is, apparently, one of GSK’s goals.
With that level of control, we could finally reach the realms of science fiction: where the mind and therefore the person is under external control. Freedom might be annihilated.
We would face confronting questions over authenticity and identity. There would be alienation between the pre-existing person and their subsequent brain activity.
Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is a graphic illustration of a common objection to enhancement, the erosion of freedom. TES at present does not appear to represent a major threat to freedom, but it is one of a family of technologies that could one day be used for effective mind control.
Even without control via a third party, there is a risk of abuse. For example, some might choose to live in the “Experience Machine”. Nozick (1974) ‘ invented’ the Experience Machine and its basic premise has been used in popular and science fiction in various forms, including most famously in The Matrix. It allows an individual to dial up any life they like. The machine then stimulates the brain to give the experience of that life, be it President, despot, star footballer or novelist. All the while the subject is sitting in a chair.
Some might argue that so steep and slippery is this slope, and so bad is the possible bottom, that such research should never go ahead.
On the other hand, I have argued with Ingmar Persson that, under the voluntary control of the person whose mind is being affected, there could be opportunities to enhance our freedom and autonomy, rather than to diminish it. For example, individuals might be able to use this technology to enhance achievement of their goals, by staving off addictions or improving impulse control, or even enhance their own values, starting with what they believe to be good and right. This could be viewed as a way of increasing freedom, giving people a greater ability to act on their values and goals. Any interventions which improve impulse control improve the ability to achieve longer term goals and aims, and so enhance freedom and autonomy.
Furthermore, if freedom to remove desires for grossly immoral ends were possible, like murdering innocent people, and control was limited to that end, then the price might be worth paying in terms of promotion of welfare.
All of this is far from the technologies that we have today. But while such scenarios are at present science fiction, they speak to the profound potential power of this family of technologies and stress the importance of early, vigorous, wide ranging, deep and professional dialogue about the development and growing potential of technologies that directly modify the brain, and so the mind.
We may already be down a path to external control of single neuron activity in the human brain. As the neural firing pattern underpinning belief, desire, character, abilities, behaviour and emotion are better understood, and neurons can be precisely, brain activity can be controlled. Since brain activity is the basis of everything about our mental lives, control of neuronal electrical activity implies brain control which implies mind control. That is, we may already be down a path where the final destination is complete control of the human mind. How far we go down this path requires not science, but ethics.

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