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Neural Interfaces: From Disability to Enhancement

Credit: Jaimie Duplass/Adobe

Credit: Jaimie Duplass/Adobe

By Scott Kiel-Chisholm

Neuroprosthetic arms, mind-controlled exoskeletons and brain–computer interfaces are already enabling the disabled, but what happens when these and other devices become mainstream consumer products that blur the lines between enhanced human and machine?

The human brain communicates with every part of the body by sending neural impulses through the central nervous system. Neural interface devices mimic this by recording neural impulses and decoding what the brain is asking the specific body part to do before instructing an assistive device. These neural interface devices include neuroprosthetic limbs, bionic eyes and even a bionic spine.

One example of a neural interface device is BrainGate, which was developed for people who cannot move or communicate. BrainGate enables individuals who cannot move to use a computer or control a wheelchair, telephone and a number of other assistive devices. It is currently in clinical trials in the United States.

A bionic eye is being developed by Bionic Vision Australia. This will enable individuals with vision impairment to regain a sense of vision, and continuing scientific research will improve the technology to provide a clearer picture of the world.

Of particular interest to people who have severe back injury, including those who have paralysed limbs, is the continuing development of the bionic spine by neurologists and biomedical engineers from the Royal Melbourne Hospital, The University of Melbourne and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. The bionic spine interfaces with a robotic exoskeleton that surrounds the body and enables movement directed by the person’s thoughts. At the 2014 World Cup 2014 in Sao Paulo, a paraplegic wearing a mind-controlled exoskeleton performed the ceremonial kick-off.

A neural interface device has already operated in conjunction with a robotic or neuroprosthetic limb. In recent research, a recipient of BrainGate was able to direct a LUKE neuroprosthetic arm to grasp a cup, thus enabling its user to drink coffee in a way she had not been able to do since becoming paralysed.

While devices are currently being developed for medical applications, some neuroscientists believe that brain implants will find wider uses by consumers, enabling greater connectivity between individuals than is currently achieved through mobile devices such as the iPhone. For example, a person might be holidaying in Alice Springs and, through the connectivity of brain implants, enable a friend in Brisbane to experience the views, tastes and sounds so that the person in Brisbane is able to enjoy some of the experiences of holidaying in Alice Springs at the same time.

This might sound like science fiction but it is becoming a reality. Experience will become unbounded by physical location as the connected minds share each others’ reality.

Some of the Challenges

Neuroscientists are aware that there will be a demand for neural interface devices not only for medical purposes but to enhance human abilities. The legal and ethical challenges for the medical profession will be the replacement of a perfectly functioning human body part with an artificial body part. For example, a person may desire neuroprosthetic legs that will enable them to run faster, jump higher and kick further with endurance beyond the capability of biological legs. The legal, ethical and policy frameworks in which we all exist may be challenged by these circumstances.

Further challenges arise where the assistive device is robotic. Who will be liable when the robotic device does something that is unacceptable or causes damage to property or injury to a person? Will the manufacturer of the assistive device be liable, or the user, or a combination of both? Robots currently have no legal personality so are not recognised as individuals who can sue or be sued.

If liability remains with the human being, how can it be determined that the instructions given by the individual, in the form of neural impulses, were exactly what the assistive device followed? If litigation was commenced following the undesirable actions of an assistive device, what neuroscientific evidence will be admissible to the court? If the neuroscientific evidence is admissible, what weight will the courts place on that evidence when determining liability?

In relation to the complexity of the robotic device that is controlled or instructed by the human mind, it’s possible that software engineers and computer scientists may produce a cognitive robotic device that can “think” for itself. Autonomous vehicles may develop this capability, but the most prominent device currently using cognitive computing is IBM Watson. When considering the time it will take before cognitive computing will be as powerful as the human mind, a former lead engineer for IBM Watson, Jerome Pesenti, stated in a TEDx Bermuda presentation that this could take as long as 25 years but might be sooner.

With cognitive computing, the operation of the computer is not confined to a lineal process dictated by the algorithms but, like the human brain, the computer moves beyond the algorithms to access information from many sources simultaneously to determine the most correct answer to whatever challenge is presented.

Will the three laws of robotics devised by science fiction author, Isaac Asimov, provide security and safety for the human race? Will robots, through the use of cognitive computing, find a way around these rules? The possibility that human beings would develop a superintelligent device that would render human beings redundant is known as the “singularity”. These threats and challenges will impact on the current ethical, legal and social frameworks.

Impact on Ethical, Legal and Social Frameworks

The European Parliament is taking steps to address some of the challenges in relation to robotics. The European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee has provided a report on the European Civil Law Rules in Robotics and recommendations for the European Parliament to develop a charter for robotics that will provide a number of protections for society in the rapidly evolving area of robotics. The Australian Parliament might be prudent in considering a similar initiative to better harness the benefits of robotics and minimise any adverse outcomes.

The challenges for law, ethics and public policy are complex because robotics are and will be used in an endless variety of ways, such as autonomous vehicles, drones, warfare, neural interface systems, medical procedures, hospitals, nursing homes, classrooms and domestic homes. The difficulty for law and policymakers is to develop or modify the current ethical, legal and social frameworks to enable the benefits of robotics to be enjoyed by society rather than to hinder or prohibit such technological innovation.

The issues that arise, though, are endless. Should robots be given the same or similar rights and obligations as human individuals? If yes, how will this work? Will robots be paid wages from which taxes are paid? Will humans who have been replaced by robots in the workplace be compensated? Will judges in the courts be robots? How will the element of intent be determined in the criminal trial of a robot? As a person replaces their biological body parts with neural interface devices, at what point will they be considered a robot or a cyborg or will they always remain a human individual? What personal privacy safeguards should be introduced?

The issues are endless, so while neuroscientist and engineers develop neural interface devices and robots, the ethicists, lawyers, academics and politicians are considering the ethical, legal and social frameworks within which innovation can exist and thrive. For example, legal academics at Queensland University of Technology’s School of Law are researching many of the different legal challenges that exist for this developing technology, seeking to add knowledge and recommendations in collaboration with industry, government and public sectors. Issues being explored include the regulatory framework for health and autonomous vehicles, intellectual property law issues, privacy implications and policing. While the research will be ongoing, outcomes will be published in Australian and international law journals. Many of these articles will be available to the public online through QUT’s ePrints open access repository (https://eprints.qut.edu.au/). Where research grants are received, reports will be provided to the funder that includes recommendations to address the legal challenges.

Together, we can build this exciting world of technological advancement and innovation, but if we ignore the challenges now, we endanger our future.


Scott Kiel-Chisholm is a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology’s School of Law, and a research leader in the Intellectual Property and Innovation Law Research Program.