The Morality of Mind Control

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A new kind of “hook up” culture is on the rise. It won’t be about connections between people but about individuals connecting with computers and robots.

It is becoming increasingly feasible to control or interact with machines and computers by hooking them up to your brain.

This is not simply a rehash of 1970s science fiction fantasies. The technology for connecting brains – and their thoughts – to machines is a reality. Today. It is going to take our world by storm.

Are we ready for the profound, extremely important moral questions that come with such capabilities? What does all this mean for a Christian?

Who will decide how our society answers these moral questions?

Welcome to the Brain-Machine Interface

Since 2006, researchers have been attempting to “read” thoughts that are represented by electric impulses in the neurons of the brain. They have had mind-blowing (not literally) success in doing this through various technologies.

For example, individuals who are paralyzed throughout their bodies except for their eyes have had electrodes attached to their brains, and then they used their thoughts to control blurry pictures on a computer screen and bring them into better focus. Others have been able to move robotic arms with their thoughts or to communicate through a computer that turns their thoughts into audible speech.

The most advanced technology to date was unveiled last month by Neuralink, a company owned by the celebrity inventor and investor Elon Musk. The ends of “threads” are placed in close proximity to hundreds of neurons in the brain, and those threads carry electronic signals to a device that interprets the signals. The threads can pick up electric pulses from the neurons and then make sense of it all to send a command to a machine or computer.

Neuralink’s technology is still far from being available to consumers (certainly not for two-day shipping from Amazon). Recently, Musk announced, “A monkey has been able to control the computer with his brain. Just FYI.” The experiments, then, have only been tested in animals, although Musk says he expects FDA approval to begin testing in humans “by the end of next year,” and volunteers are being recruited.

The procedure for connecting to the brain is highly invasive at this time: the device that interprets signals is implanted behind the ear, four 8-millimeter holes are drilled into the skull, and the threads are sewn by a robot into the brain tissue itself.

Carnegie Mellon University, however, has demonstrated that human persons can control a robotic arm with their thoughts – without any surgery. They are using EEG technology that senses the neurons’ activity with just a helmet that the user wears. The resulting movement of the robotic arm is pretty smooth and accurate.

DARPA, the U.S. military’s research agency, is also investing heavily into several approaches for tapping into soldiers’ thoughts through helmets and then controlling military or surveillance equipment. Those technologies use light or sound waves and magnetic pulses.

What Is It for?

The main idea touted is that physically paralyzed individuals might be able to control computers to communicate or achieve whatever tasks computers are capable of, including moving a wheelchair or robotic device. The number of paralyzed persons in the U.S. is close to five-and-a-half million.

For Elon Musk, however, the purposes of the technology are not merely therapeutic. Musk wants “to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” which means that highly powerful computers will not only take direction from humans, but “merge” with persons by flooding them with information, calculation, and decision-making activities that are as much a product of the machine as they are of the human person.

DARPA, of course, has an interest in using these technologies for military purposes. Soldiers could control weapons, drones, vehicles, or other machines, or they might communicate better with each other.

Or, perhaps, we will simply apply our thoughts to playing games on our iPhones. Who knows? It is a crazy world.

Moral Issues Regarding the New Technologies

Issue #1: Will the technology be used only for therapeutic purposes?

Given the involvement and declared intentions of big investors like Elon Musk, Facebook, Microsoft, and the U.S. military (as well as other countries’ militaries), it seems clear that the brain-machine interface technology will be used for much more than therapeutic purposes in assisting paraplegics or other disabled persons.

In regard to other technologies like genetic engineering, the Catholic Church has drawn a line between therapeutic purposes (good) and purposes that are purely for enhancement (generally bad or illicit). At least to the extent that brain-machine interfaces involve surgically implanting connections to a person’s brain, we might expect the Church’s teaching to be similar. Most future use of the technologies, however, will likely involve wearable helmets that do not invade or damage the user’s head.

There is no clear line between a therapeutic or enhancement use of the technologies. Is it therapeutic to help a person drive his car more safely by controlling it directly through his mind, especially when he is otherwise limited by an average focus and reaction time? Is it a bad thing to enhance an accountant’s abilities of calculation and analysis by connecting his mental processes to a powerful computer?

The only thing obvious about all of this is that we need the guidance of the Church and tech-savvy theologians and philosophers – and we need that guidance very soon.

First Do No Harm

Issue #2: Will the technology be used to cause harm?

The traditional “just war” doctrines will not help us to determine if our military should be putting thought-communicating helmets on our military personnel. The ability of a soldier to control a military drone with his thoughts could make the decision-making process too private, subjective, or fast for the level of moral deliberation required in battlefield situations. Maybe the greatly increased ability to control and use robots and machines on the battlefield (or in one-sided attacks) will make it too easy to kill without experiencing the painful emotions and personal danger that used to remind soldiers of the tremendous significance of taking a human enemy’s life.

For civilians, we have already seen the complete disregard for personal privacy displayed by profit-hungry companies like Facebook. Do we really want Facebook (which is developing its own brain-computer interface technology) in control of storing the data we send in our thoughts, or of the patterns of emotions and decision making that characterize our unique personalities? Handing that kind of data and control to a corporation – essentially converting our private identity into public property – may be a deeply immoral violation of the personal identity with which we were divinely created.

The Essential Human Dimension

Issue #3: Will use of the technology further erode respect for human dignity?

It is not hard to see that, in a world in which people relate more directly to machines, interpersonal relationships could suffer. If much, or even most, of the contribution that a person makes to society is accomplished through artificial intelligence (computers or robotics), our achievement-oriented society may show less appreciation for the emotional, spiritual, and loving characteristics of human persons.

Issue #4: Will our spiritual identities become confused or damaged?

We currently think of ourselves as unique persons who have unique relationships with God, in part because we are each bound within a physical body with its own mind. Much of Catholic theology, particularly that of St. Thomas Aquinas, ties the dignified nature of a person to his or her capacity for reason. How, then, will we think of ourselves and others if the boundary between our bodies/minds and the outside world – including computers and machines – is blurred significantly?

Issue #5: Does the technology enhance or detract from living in holiness?

I think this is the fundamental question we need to be asking ourselves in this age of new technologies. What is our purpose? Is it to achieve ever greater capabilities? Or is it – as Jesus commanded us – to direct all our focus on loving God and our neighbor?

As for me, I choose love.

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