The Elon Musk company Neuralink will finally conduct the first tests of its brain implant in human volunteers this year. Many researchers however have a lot of concerns about the implementation of this technology. The concerns mostly relate to bioethics, safety, and use of data, as well as the future of the implanted chips once the trial is over.
A direct neural interface is Elon Musk’s promise to help people with disabilities. As his company Neuralink prepares to conduct the first tests on humans (after trials on pigs and monkeys), The Daily Beast interviewed scientists who expressed concerns about such a project.
Laura Cabrera, a neuroethicist at Pennsylvania State University, wonders if it will be possible to remove the implants without damaging the brain. “If things go wrong, we don’t really have the technology to ‘explant them.’ And how long will an implant last? Will Neuralink offer upgrades to participants afterward?”
Neuralink Promising too much
For Karola Keritmair, assistant professor of the history of medicine and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, future commercial benefits are a concern. “I worry about an uneasy marriage between a for-profit company and these medical interventions that are hopefully there to help the people.” Neuralink says it is developing its implant to help people with disabilities, however, the market is quite small, which could make it unprofitable.
However, a direct neural interface could be of interest to the general public, who could control devices with their brains, for example controlling their Tesla with their brains. “But then all these human subjects – people with real needs – are being exploited and used in risky research for the commercial gain of others,” says Syd Johnson of Suny Upstate Medical University’s Center for Bioethics and Humanities.
She also questions the company’s goals. “If Neuralink claims that it can use its device for therapeutic purposes to help people with disabilities, it is making unrealistic promises because it is far from being able to do so.”
Who will own the data collected?
Researchers are also concerned about the use of the data collected by the implant. Who will have access to it and what will happen to the data if Neuralink is sold? Then there is the issue of the security of the device, i.e. the risk of hacking and the devastating consequences for the victim if a malicious person takes control of the implant. As this type of technology spreads, what about its misuse by governments or corporations for mass surveillance?
The researchers interviewed are not necessarily opposed to the technology, but they are wary of the potential abuses and hope that the notoriety of the Neuralink project will force them to do everything by the book. The implant has the potential to change the lives of paralyzed people, and Elon Musk’s company is not the only one working on neural interfaces.