26 March 2008

iPlant ethics: is electronic neuromodulation too dangerous?

In response to the iPlant video, richardpinder and cromwell1646 write the following (my emphasis):

richardpinder:
I can see where you are coming from with this technology with regards to taking it in a positive direction. However I think that this science is far too dangerous, more so than every other science I have knowledge of to be allowed public. The massive risks of this technology is that it can lead to complete mind control. Anything can be hacked given time thus it wont be possible to make this hack proof. This technology can be used to control free will and should be banned now. I hope you fail.


cromwell1646:
Dear Sir,
I have just watched you video on your iPlant. I think you are coming at a problem from a positive direction. However this technology could be easily and seriously abused.
I am a programmer and I can tell you categorically its possible to hack into anything given enough time. The implications of this technology is it could be used to control someones mind against their will in the wrong hands.
This means that the cult like problems of today and people being bent to do something extremely negative against their will pales into insignificance compared to what this could do.
To spell it out this could be used in countries ruled by a dictator to control its people. It could be used by Religious extreme groups to make the perfect suicide bomber. It could be used by criminal organisations to commit crimes.
In the instance you are not motivated by personal consequences of your actions I will highlight the consequences to you as a business entity. The second someone does something illegal as a result of either your chip being hijacked or malfunctioning you will be sued to pieces.
For these reasons if you really want to contribute something positive I urge you to take this in another direction or look at something else entirely. For the moment in time I am open to discussion on this subject.
However should you be unwilling to debate this I will highlight exactly why this technology should not be allowed in the public eye through the media and this will in all likely hood irreversibly destroy your reputation. I would consider this just and fair and for the greater good. However as I am reasonable I am giving you opportunity to answer this.
James Cromwell

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Both replies exemplify an attitude many people develop toward the iPlant:

(1) it would enable total mind control and
(2) should therefore not be developed

(1) I certainly agree that the iPlant would have considerable potential for abuse. However, let's not overstate the level of control it could give you over another person. Brain stimulation reward generates motivation by repeatedly reinforcing specific, simple behaviors. In animal models this training process takes time and works only for elementary behaviors (e.g. physical exercise). Manchurian candidate scenarios involving total behavioral control over another person may therefore be of lesser concern. A more realistic problem is that of an authoritarian regime using iPlants to create large factories with workers addicted to manual labor. If you think I'm wrong about this technical detail please make it known on the forum as soon as possible. It may be possible to reprogram an iPlant user to endlessly perform some repetitive action against their will, but since the implant would contain no radio receiver this would have to involve kidnapping the person, which seems like an excessively laborious way of causing harm.

(2) I do not agree that malicious mind control and other risks associated with electronic neuromodulation (see 'concerns' below) can be avoided by banning iPlant research. This is because the iPlant is merely the result of combining an established theory (brain stimulation reward) with an exceedingly popular electrosurgical procedure (deep brain stimulation) (see the Journal of Neuromodulation and the Journal of Brain Stimulation for research in this field). There is no doubt in my mind that other scientists will soon see the enormous potential of this simple idea and quickly develop it. In the iPlant group we feel it is better if iPlants are developed in a democracy, with public oversight and vigorous debate, than under an authoritarian regime. We are trying to understand the impact of iPlants on human life and how they can be used for good, but we are certainly not ignoring the risks: the bulk of the discussion on the forum concerns potential dangers and objections, and these are summarized in the ethics section of the iPlant website.

I truly appreciate your criticism and hope you will add more points to the list of risks below AND join the forum to help us solve these problems. Not merely because iPlants have a much better chance of developing into something good in a democracy, but because they may be of enormous benefit to individuals suffering from poor self-control, and to society as a whole. Please try to sympathize with people whose lives are destroyed because of their inability to exercise self-discipline: people dying in the obesity epidemic; alcoholics and drug addicts; the millions of people living with severe learning difficulties. Moreover, global problems such as climate change and the healthcare crisis could benefit greatly from iPlant-driven research.

I look forward to hearing from you again.
Christopher


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Concerns (from the ethics section on the iPlant website)

This part of the site is under development, with the aim to organize and begin addressing ethical, behavioral and social objections to the development of the iPlant. For a more thorough discussion see the forum. Purely technical or medical problems are discussed in the implant technology section.

Access control
Several factors, such as the potential for over-use, suggest that iPlants will have to be subject to robust access control by their manufacturer. This raises problems of trust on the one hand and of security and hacking on the other.

Addiction
People might bypass the need to perform difficult tasks and self-stimulate ad infinitum (similar to Larry Niven's wireheads). This problem may be avoided by ensuring robust access control by the manufacturer.

De-humanization and over-use (discussed here)
Some people worry that iPlants would blur the line between human being and machine. Concerns have been raised that iPlants would make society rougher and more competitive, and leave less time for relaxation and socializing. It has also been suggested that people could become too dependent on their iPlants and not develop self-dicipline of their own, and, similarly, that their feelings of accomplishment and self-worth might be undermined.

Inequality
iPlants could create a division in society between the haves and the have-nots. This would be a problem for people who can't afford an iPlant, can't have one for medical reasons, or who simply don't want one.

Mind control (discussed above)
The fear that iPlants could be used to control other people against their will.

Unpredictability
The Jurassic Park argument. It seems extremely difficult to predict what the world would be like if people had safe, affordable access to iPlants (see philosophy and fiction).

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