Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: June 2020

Briefly Reviewed: June 2020

Cyborg Mind: What Brain-Computer and Mind-Cyberspace Interfaces Mean for Cyberneuroethics

By Edited by Calum MacKellar

Publisher: Berghahn

Pages: 254

Price: $120

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Cyborg Mind is the first book to draw “cyber,” “neuro,” and “ethics” together to reveal the ethical challenges raised by the use of neuronal interface systems. These systems are intended not just to rehabilitate but to enhance and even transform human capacities.

Cyborg Mind, a book produced by the Scottish Council of Bioethics, surveys what is happening in this field; it explains the progress being made, for example, in harnessing “living neurons” to computers and developing cyborg-like hybrids of machines and human organisms. We are told about human neurons now being cultured to form synthetic brains for possible insertion into robots. Although there is as yet no “public distrust of science,” most people might have an “intuitive reaction” to human-computer cyborgs and regard them as “monstrous.” However, those who are gung-ho for the new technology — e.g., posthumanists — hail it as offering the “only realistic form of immortality.” They imagine that the “virtual kingdom” will “put religion largely out of business.”

Today there is an explosion of neurological investigations as the brain becomes the new frontier, the project to master. In 2013 international groups of neuroscientists created the most detailed atlas of the brain, called “Big Brain.” It turns out that our neuronal system is far more complex and efficient than any computer now in use. At its peak, our brain has around one trillion neurons, each capable of ten thousand connections with other neurons, for a total of ten quadrillion possible connections. Cyborg Mind rightly reminds us that the brain should not be confused with the mind, as mental experiences cannot be explained in purely physical terms. The brain supports the mind, but it is the mind itself that is capable of perception, thought, moral judgment, and memory. Amassing more knowledge about the brain will not explain free will and moral agency.

Neuronal interfaces, in the form of electrodes applied to the scalp or implanted in the brain, are already being used to “harness brain activity to operate artificial devices.” For patients with spinal-cord injuries, strokes, or amputations, these interfaces transmit data from neuronal networks in the brain to appliances that can restore some movement. As “brain patterns” are similar whether a movement is imagined or performed, a paralyzed man with an implanted brain chip is able to move a cursor on a computer screen merely by thinking, and a person believed to be in a vegetative state can be asked to imagine a movement, and his brain signals can be recorded. For those who are deaf, cochlear implants that send signals to the auditory nerve are available, or if something more is needed, auditory brain-stem implants can “sidestep the whole hearing system.” The latter have already been used in the thousands.

Other therapeutic uses of neuronal interfaces include Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, depression, and epilepsy, and Transcranial Brain Stimulation (TBS) to help adults with psychiatric or learning disorders. TBS has already been used in over ten thousand adults. Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) is sold online for the supposed “enhancement” of cognition, but without regard to possible risks.

In terms of police and military application, brain-scanning is already in commercial use for lie detection. Additionally, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) spent millions of dollars on the development of brain-computer interfaces for soldiers to make decisions and recognize threats more quickly, to control weapons from a distance by brain signals, and to communicate brain to brain. DARPA also sees a “need” for an “enhanced” soldier whose memories and emotions will be modified by “direct neuronal control” so as to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the words of Tony Tether, head of DARPA from 2001 to 2009, “Imagine a warrior with the intellect of a human and the immorality of a machine.”

As for the gaming industry, neuronal interfaces are the big thing: Electro-encephalogram (EEG) headsets allow players to control a ball by thinking, and the game even tailors the level of play to gamers’ needs. Players can also live virtual lives with alternate identities or avatars. They can step into a computer-assisted virtual environment (CAVE) with 3D glasses and a sensory bodysuit, such that they can hardly tell whether they are in a real or a virtual world. This “immersive technology” is being used by security forces to train recruits.

But what about the risks? First, there is no definition of humanity in existing law, and since 98 percent of our genes are shared with chimps, humanity is now associated with neurons, especially those in our cerebral cortex. The new emphasis on the brain, however, is problematic: A machine that appears to be thinking could be valued as a human being, especially at this time when the human body is often compared to a computer, with DNA as its software. Research is ongoing to create a computer modeled on a neurological system — i.e., to make a digital mind. Would such a computer be considered a “person,” even though not human and not biological?

Second, not only do these neuronal interfaces blur the line between human and machine, they also lead to isolation from face-to-face relationships, difficulty in separating online and offline identities, and a growing inability to deal with the hardships of the world, success being so easy to attain in a virtual environment. Cyberspace creates a dissociation of mind and body, akin to Manichaeism, in which salvation is “an escape from the body.” Then there is the danger of coercion. Neurological interventions intended to make persons more “moral” could end up as a form of authoritarian control. A “hive mind” or a “network consciousness,” whereby a number of persons combine their minds in cyberspace supported by computers, is an awful prospect. What if their bodily limits should be breached, or one mind impose itself on the others?

Atheists calling themselves “transhumanists” and “posthumanists” are having a field day with these new technologies. Both see them as the way to “immortality.” Transhumanists want to create beings that didn’t exist before, like cyborgs, fusing a human brain with a robot. Posthumanists go even further: They welcome the end of homo sapiens, believing that the Virtual Kingdom will make earthly life futile. They call our attachment to our bodies “carbon-chauvinism” and find it as objectionable as racism. Sociologist William Sims Bainbridge defends a “technologically based immortality” as “realistic,” while historian Hava Tirosh-Samuelson calls technology the “savior” of a new “religious order” that promises the “first real afterlife.”

R. Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near (2005), rejoices that “software-based humans” will attain immortality in the virtual world, where the “mind file” will survive in silicon format and interact with other posthuman entities. Right now, he admits, no computer can upload a human mind, since it would take over ten quadrillion bits to represent all the neuronal connections, but he is certain that such a super-computer is on the way. Among posthumanists who were polled in 2001, 51 percent found it appealing to have their minds uploaded into a game like World of Warcraft.

Poor deluded atheists! Don’t they realize that, as Cyborg Mind notes, this “immortality” of theirs would be subject to viral attack, failure of the main drive, and hacking? Ah, but theirs is a blind and total faith. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.”


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