TR: Will those kinds of devices raise ethical questions?
Wolpe: A key issue is the implications of these technologies for personal privacy. If there are eventually technologies that externalize internal states, who has a right to access that information? And what about cases where that information could be taken against people’s will, or without their knowledge? Are we going to start implanting electrodes in the brains of the suspected terrorists in Guantánamo Bay? Certainly not yet – there’s nothing we could get out of that. But research is being funded by the Departments of Homeland Security and of Defense for things like lie detection technologies using functional MRI or near-infrared light. These technologies can be used coercively in a way polygraphs, for example, can’t. If you’re not willing to cooperate with a polygraph, there’s really nothing they can do. But you aren’t necessarily going to need to cooperate for some of these technologies; they can, theoretically, be used covertly. They may be used on suspected criminals or enemies of the state, or on you and me when we’re going through airports. Near-infrared technology may someday employ an undetectable spot of light on your forehead. Research on ways to take what used to be private thoughts and make them accessible will challenge our laws and our thinking about what privacy means.
TR: How does the societal impact of brain-computer interfaces compare to other areas of biomedical research, such as genetics or stem cells?
Wolpe: Neurotechnology is way ahead of genetic technology. We’re not cloning anybody yet. We’re not creating genetically modified human beings. Yet we are already testing implanting electrodes into people’s brains. Unfortunately, there’s only a fraction of the scrutiny by policymakers, legal scholars, ethicists, and the religious community towards neuroscientific advances that there is towards genetic advances. That’s in some ways very, very troubling.
If I had your genome in front of me and did every test on it that I could think of, what could I really tell about you aside from your disease profile? Not much. We don’t know how to look at a genome and tell if you’re happy or shy or funny or extraverted. But we are beginning to be able to tell those things from brain scans. Brain technology is, before genetics, going to tell us things about people that they really consider to be private.
Another big issue is intervention: is it ethical to change fundamental aspects of who people are by changing their genomes? We still can’t intervene in human beings genetically; even gene therapy has been, so far, largely unachievable. Our ability to manipulate the brain raises far more immediate questions about intervening in who we are fundamentally and what’s the right and the wrong kind of intervention. People involved in the development of the technologies and people like me who study them need to spearhead a very open, public discussion so that society as a whole can begin to respond in ways that direct the research into productive and socially desirable avenues.