Thought leaders

Reporter

The very thought of soldiers firing missiles with their minds is enough to send a shiver down the spine of even the most hardened observer of defence technology. But according to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound.

Speaking at the launch of a public consultation into the ethics of technologies and devices that intervene with the brain, Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics from Reading University and member of the Working Party, claimed that the defence industry is already investigting the development of vehicles and weaponry that can be remotely operated by thought control. Warwick himself generated considerable interest in the concept when, in 2005, he revealed that he had used his own thought to remotely operate a UK based robot arm from New York.

To control vehicles and weapons with the mind, a soldier would rely on a brain-computer interface (BCI) system. Such a system would require the user to wear a skullcap containing several electrodes that detect electric signals emitted by the brain. These signals would be interpreted by a computer to perform certain functions, such as launching a missile.

Echoing Warwick’s claims, Professor Thomas Baldwin, Chair of the Council’s study from York University, said: ‘I don’t think it is unrealistic if you have the unlimited funds of the Pentagon to project ourselves towards some kind of Star Wars future.’

However, signals sent to brain-computer interfaces can also be interpreted for more docile and constructive purposes, such as enabling a fully paralyzed person to control their wheelchair and interpreting the thoughts of people who cannot talk. Click here to read our article about this.

Other neurotechnologies discussed by the academic panel launching the consultation at the Science Media Centre, in London, included neurostimulation and neural stem cell therapy, both of which could offer life-changing benefits.

Neurostimulation involves applying an electric or magnetic stimulus to nerves in order to alter brain activity in a specific area. Techniques include deep brain stimulation (DBS) which places an electrode in the brain and wires under the skin. Despite the side-effects of DBS being largely unknown the technique is already being used to stabilize the shaking in Parkinson’s patients and is thought to have potential in treating depression.

Meanwhile, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) devices offer a hand-held non-invasive neurostimulation solution that is being used to treat depression, Alzheimer’s disease and pain disorders, such as migraines. The devices, which can be purchased with relative ease from the internet, are thought to suppress certain aspects of brain activity while enhancing others, and have been shown to boost memory and mathematical ability. Could we expect to see bosses forcing their employees to use these devices in order to improve their performance one day?

Finally, neural stem cell therapy involves injecting stem cells into the brains of patients who have lost a significant number of nerve cells as a result of a stroke. Small-scale preliminary trials are currently underway in the UK but the treatment is not routinely available at this stage as it not yet known whether it introduce unwanted personality changes.

Surgeons have been tweaking the brain for hundreds of years – and the latest generation of brain-intervention neurotechnologies are part of a rapidly growing market (estimated to be worth £5bn) that could have major benefits for humanity. But as with any disruptive technology, there is a potentially worrying flipside, and to allow this industry to grow without carefully considering the ethical dimension would be foolhardy. The Nuffield council’s consulation is a welcome addition to this important debate.

Read our recent interview with Kevin Warwick here