Brain Chips: the Technological Imperative and the Morality

Rat with a brain chip:
Rat with a brain chip: read the Singularity Hub article.

Our modern technology has helped humanity to achieve many marvels that our ancestors could not even have imagined. The photo above shows a rat that was injured to a degree that it could not perform simple movement tasks. Scientists implanted a microchip into the rat’s brain. When the chip is powered on, the rat recovers a normal level of capacity.

This emerging technology offers hope for injured humans. But it also raises the question of what other things could be done by using brain chips, and whether those things would be good. Could people be turned into assassins and suicide bombers, by implanting chips into their brains? Could political dissidents be silenced and made compliant by this technique? Could people be “reprogrammed” to have their memories changed? When people with brain chips become networked to each other and to other devices, what will it mean to be human?

Ethicists are discussing the issues that arise from this emerging technology. Ellen McGee and G Q Maguire Jr discuss the implications in their paper Ethical Assessment of Implantable Brain Chips. In a sober assessment that accepts the many advantages that this technology will bring, these authors note: “The most frightening implication of this technology is the grave possibility that it would facilitate totalitarian control of humans.” They go on to write: “A paramount worry involves who will control the technology and what will be programmed; this issue overlaps with uneasiness about privacy issues, and the need for control and security of communication links. Not all the countries of the world prioritize autonomy, and the potential for sinister invasions of liberty and privacy are alarming.”

Photo of German stamp.
German stamp showing Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Read blog for the story.

Imagine that the next dictator that takes over an advanced country has access to this technology. Imagine that the governments of our “democratic” countries aren’t really democratic after all, and become corrupt and beholden to powerbrokers behind the scenes. What might such technology be used for, in that type of situation?

Who knows? We will eventually find out, anyway. Why? Because nothing seems to deflect the progress of technology. If it can be built, it probably will be. This is called the inevitability thesis. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make bad choices and better ones.

Perhaps what will become just as important as the potential uses of brain chip technology is what we will allow that technology to be used for. If we cherish liberty, then we will not allow our liberty to be diminished. But do we cherish liberty? Sairy Lligalo, indigenous Ecuadorian author of Kuntur Jaka, says: “there exists a subtle fear of liberty and everyone wants to turn into a slave – for that reason nobody finds themselves truly free.”

According to Sairy Lligalo, the give-away signs that we fear liberty is our need to function in hierarchies in which we give away our authority and power to “superiors” and lose our dignity in the bargain. That, and our enthusiasm for ideologies that relieve us of our responsibility to think for ourselves. So, does it really matter if we have a brain chip or not, if we are mental slaves anyway?

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