- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2008


Neuroscience is on the verge of transforming society. The field has matured over the past 15 years from creating vast “stamp collections” of data without a unifying theory to the potential in the next several years to provide us with an understanding of how the human mind emerges from the collective activity of 100 billion nerve cells.

The neuroscientists who uncover this mystery will transform our society much in the way Albert Einstein did when he discovered the general theory of relativity. This breakthrough would, in combination with the revolution in neurotechnologies ongoing now, present us with a host of remarkable opportunities but at the same time create a slew of ethical and legal sticky wickets. Much as Einstein’s discoveries brought about many benefits, they were also responsible, at least indirectly, for the creation of nuclear weapons.

What ethical questions will we need to confront as we move closer to uncovering the mysteries of our minds?

Current work on the so-called “brain-machine interface” are allowing advances that may unlock the keys to the human brain’s own neural code. New prosthetics are being developed that will enable victims of traumatic injury to communicate with loved ones and caregivers using pure mental thought as a replacement for writing or the spoken word.

While these prosthetics are uncontroversial when used to heal, what about when they are deployed instead to augment the healthy mind? Imagine, the ability to purchase an implantable chip that would enhance your sense of sight or smell, or even your intelligence. This augmented brain enhancement technology differs only from the medical prosthetic in its end purpose.

As importantly, diseases that damage and destroy the “mind” such as Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia may first yield to treatment with new individually targeted brain drugs and replacement cells eventually leading to cures.

Imagine an America where the current cruel and unusual death sentence that comes with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is ameliorated so that, with chronic drug treatments, the patient might maintain their memories.

In this case, such treatments and cures come with the costs inherent in their development and production. How are we as a society to allocate such potentially expensive but lifesaving neurotechnologies?

At the same time, we may soon be constructing machines that will be hybrids: both superpowerful digital computers, but also reverse-engineered brains, combining the advantages of both the ability to conduct billions of boring “mental” operations at lightning-speed and humanlike abilities to deceive, create and engage something similar to our emotions.

Would such machines be conscious? A new Einstein might tell us yea or nay, but for all intents and purposes, such machines (robots) would appear to us as conscious and at least as capable as humans in many areas. What rights would we give to such machines (if any)? What rights might they give to us if things got out of hand? How might we keep things from getting out of hand?

Our challenge is that we don’t pay enough attention to such game-changing discoveries as they are happening. And when we don’t pay attention, then the societal conversations that need to happen to reach consensus on policy also don’t happen - at least in a proactive fashion. We end up reacting instead.

In the case of the uncovering the secrets of the human mind, such proactive consideration would be better off earlier than later.

The time has come for interested stakeholders (which would be all of us) to come together - in town halls across the country, in universities, in Silicon Valley and in Congress - to hold the societal give-and-take that can guide us through this new “turning of the scientific page.”

One such “conversation” that has already begun is the National Decade of the Mind Project. The project represents a unique opportunity to chart our course. Working with decision-makers in Congress, across federal agencies and all over the world, scientists are engaging with their fellow citizens to prepare the way for the fantastic opportunities that will emerge from understanding the human mind, as well as avoiding potholes of this new road, less traveled.

As a neuroscientist, I urge Americans to embrace the neuroscience revolution but soberly discuss the ethical and legal implications of what these changes might mean. We can do this by urging Congress and the new administration to endorse the National Decade of the Mind Project and the concomitant investment into a healthier and more prosperous nation.

James Olds is the director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University.

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