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Machines Like Us

Crimes against consciousness

Monday, 05 March 2012
by Peter Hankins

worradmu / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Nuffield Council on bioethics is running a consultation on the ethics of new brain technologies: specifically they mention neurostimulation and neural stem cell therapy. Neurostimulation includes transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) which typically requires nothing more than putting on a special cap or set of electrodes, and deep brain stimulation (DBS) where the electrodes are surgically inserted into the brain.

All of these are existing technologies which are already in use to varying degrees, and the consultation is prudently geared towards gathering real experience. But of course we can range a bit more freely than that, and it raises an interesting general question: what new crimes can we now commit?

Disappointingly it actually seems that there aren’t many really new neurocrimes; most of the candidates turn out to be variations or extensions of the old ones. Even where there is an element of novelty there’s often a strong analogy which allows us to transpose an existing moral framework to the new conditions (not that that necessarily means that there are easy or uncontroversial answers to the questions, of course).

I think I’ve said before, for example, that TMS seems to hold out the prospect of something analogous to the trade in illicit drugs. An unscrupulous neurologist could surely sell wonderful experiences produced by neural stimulation and might well be able to create a dependency which could be exploited for money and general blackmail. The main difference here is that the crucial lever is control of the technology rather than control of the substance, but that is a relatively small matter which has some blurry edges anyway.

It’s possible the new technologies might also be able to enhance your brain – if they allow better concentration or recall of information, for example. There is apparently some evidence that TMS might be capable of improving your exam scores. That clearly opens up a question as to whether enhanced performance in an exam, produced by neural stimulation, is cheating; and the wider question of whether easier access to TMS by wealthier citizens would build in a politically unacceptable advantage for those who are already privileged. So far as I know there’s no current drug or regime which automatically and reliably boosts academic performance; nevertheless, the issues are essentially the same as those which arise in the case of various other forms of exam cheating, or over access to superior educational facilities. There may be a new aspect to the problem here in that traditional approaches generally rest on the idea that each person has a genuine inherent level of ability; this may become less clear. If a quick shot of TMS through the skull boosts your performance for the next hour only, we might see things one way; whereas if wearing a set of electrodes helps you study and acquire permanently better understanding, we might be more inclined to think it is legitimate in at least some respects. Moreover a boost which can be represented as therapeutic, correcting a deficit rather than providing an enhancement, is far more likely to be deemed acceptable. All in all, we haven’t got anything much more than new twists on existing questions.

There is likely to be some scope for improperly influencing the behaviour of others through neural techniques, but this has clear parallels in hypnotism, confidence trickery, and other persuasive techniques; again there’s nothing completely novel here. Indeed, it could be argued that many con tricks and feats of conjuring rest on exploiting neurological quirks as it is.