Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Think nano has ethical problems? Just wrap your brain around neuro

What new tools to improve human performance will emerge from the convergence of nanotech, biotech, infotech and cognitive science?
This was topic of discussion at the recent NBIC conference in New York, where several hundred scientists, ethicists, government officials and business executives gathered.
Like nanotechnology 10 years ago, speculating about potential NBIC applications is easy. Developing novel tools that solve real world problems remains hard. Always keeping this in mind, Mike Roco, conference co-chair and architect of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, performs the difficult task of distinguishing practical applications from mere conjecture, while cultivating an environment that encourages exploratory discussions. My goal was to explore the political and economic issues that might arise as these converging technologies make possible neurotechnology -- tools that can influence the brain.
In short, when data from nanobiochips that can analyze DNA, RNA and proteins is combined with data from next-generation brain imaging systems (IC), new tools for mental health will emerge. Nanobiochips that can perform the basic bioanalysis functions (genomic, proteomic, biosimulation and microfluidics) at a low cost will transform biological analysis and production in a very similar fashion as the microprocessor did for data.
Nano-imaging techniques will also play a vital role in making the analysis of neuro-molecular level events possible. Neurotechnology will be used for therapeutic ends and to improve human emotional, cognitive and sensory system performance.
Like any new technology, neurotechnology represents both promises and problems. On the upside, neurotechnology represents new cures for mental illness, new opportunities for economic growth and a potential flowering of artist expression. These benefits are countered by the potential use of neurotechnology for law enforcement purposes or its use as neuroweapons that can selectively erase memories. Here are some of the ways that neurotechnology will impact society:
New Industries: As brain imaging advances, neuromarketing will become a significant growth sector in years to come as the trillion-per-year advertising and marketing industries leverage brain scanning technology to better understand how and why people react to different market campaigns.
New Products: For example, neuroceuticals that can temporarily improve different aspects of mental health will become possible. Unlike today psychopharmaceuticals, neuroceuticals are neuromodulators that have high efficacy and negligible side effects. By being able to target multiple subreceptors in specific neural circuits, neuroceuticals will create the possibility for dynamic intracellular regulation of an individual neurochemistry. Neuroceuticals will be used for therapy and improvement.
Competitive advantage: Mental health is the ultimate competitive weapon. Mental health underpins the communication, creativity and employee productivity. Individuals who utilize neuroceuticals (say to forecast emotions) will become more productive and will attain neurocompetitive advantage. While some countries may choose to ban them, performance-enabling neuroceuticals will emerge as significant productivity tools.
Patterns in the location of production: India and China will likely develop regional clusters of neurotechnology firms as political and cultural views on human testing create the necessary conditions for technological experimentation and development.
Public policy: Neuroethicists, like Wrye Sententia from the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, are already confronting issues of brain privacy and cognitive liberty. As the competitive edge provided by neurotechnology becomes apparent, the ethical debate will evolve into a discussion of the right to enable individuals to use these new tools to improve themselves vs. uneven access to what others will describe as unfair performance improvement. In the legislative arena the competitive necessity of using these new tools will cause great concern over whether or not they will be required in order to just compete in tomorrow global economy.
While neurotechnology's impact on society may seem far-fetched to some, so was the idea of flying 400 people from Tokyo to London in 1900. Indeed, it was Lord Kelvin, the head of the British Royal Society, who in 1898, proclaimed that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible, yet 50 years later people were doing it.
Whether or not neurotechnology emerges as I suggest it is clear that sustained investment in NBIC is critically important if we are to deal with the substantial economic, political and social change that lies ahead.


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