PARIS: The world is on the brink of a ‘neurotechnology revolution’ which has the potential to transform human health and welfare. However, urgent action is needed to protect brain data, experts told international media on Friday.

Medical breakthroughs in neurotechnology have enable paralysed individuals to walk again and deaf people to hear. Elon Musk’s firm, Neuralink, has publicly shared advances in brain implants. These developments are pushing the idea that they may one day be a lifestyle choice, as opposed to a medical device.

However, three experts gathered in Paris as part of an advisory panel for UNESCO (the UN’s agency for science and culture) told members of the press that the technology was already starting to proliferate. “This is really a crucial moment in human history,” said Marcello Ienca of the Technical University of Munich, in Germany.

“For the first time, we are developing the tools to understand and modify the functioning of the human brain and modify the functioning of the human brain.” Ienca and other experts interviewed by international media, specifically research scientist Nataliya Kosmyna and entrepreneur Ryota Kanai, stressed that the emerging field was ‘much wider than isolated medical breakthroughs’, with an array of consumer products already having entered markets.

They say the technology will be readily available in just a few years, though ethical guidance will be vital.

UNESCO has formed a group comprising 24 experts, to aid in drafting an “ethical framework” for the emerging technology. They hope to get agreement from UN member states by the end of next year.

‘A new species’

Musk has positioned himself at the centre of efforts to publicise neurotechnology, making eye-opening claims such as suggesting ‘humans could become telepathic’ or ‘upload their consciousnesses’ and in effect ‘live forever’.

Kosmyna is of the view that some of Musk’s more outlandish statements were probably aimed at attracting a greater number of potential investors, rather than projecting the reality of the technology.

Kosmyna, who designs and develops wearable devices such as glasses and hats that process brain data, says the field had the potential to transform humanity.

“I absolutely believe in the augmented human and that we are about to create a new species,” she said.

Although the experts have been skeptical of many of Musk’s claims, they say his firm is engaged in original work.

Ienca said Neuralink is the singular firm currently thinking of brain implants for the purpose of enhancement rather than to fulfill medical needs.

However, the experts say wearable technology is more likely to turn a profit in the short term. “You are not going to drill your skull, but you’re going to wear these (devices),” said Kosmyna.

She projects within the next five years, classrooms and other settings will be revolutionised by wearable technology that makes it possible for teachers to monitor their students and pick up whether they were bored, confused or engaged.

‘Two-tier planet’

UNESCO aims to ensure that all such technology, will respect human rights. “There can be no neurodata without neurorights,” sated UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay.

Ienca pointed out that Apple has recently patented technology, that enables the next generation of Airpods to gather brain data.

“Apple will be able to collect brain activity information continuously from hundreds of millions of people,” he said.

The data may be utilized in numerous ways, ranging from healthcare to marketing, and needs to be protected, he said. A secondary concern is to ensure that the products do indeed do, what their manufacturers say.

Devices currently on the market claim all kinds of powers, from solving mental health issues to boosting productivity at work.

“Even neuroscientists don’t know if that kind of claim is true,” said Kanai, CEO of Araya, a Japanese AI and neurotech firm. Addressing wider concerns, Ienca said that we could create a “two-tier planet” divided between “the enhanced and the non-enhanced”.

“This could be the end of human social cohesion as we know it,” he said.

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2024

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