The Ethics of Emerging Technologies

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

At last night’s International Neuroethics Society public program, we heard from eight speakers on the ethics of emerging technologies, addressing the potential benefits and risks they raise when applied to health care.

Kate Darling, a specialist in human-robot interaction at MIT, talked about her experience with robots and her hopes and concerns for mainstream integration. She opened her presentation with a personal story from 2007, when she became the owner of a baby dinosaur robot, the size of a small cat, that responded to touch. She would often show it off to friends, demonstrating how it cried when she held it upside down. After a while, though, Darling began to notice that it upset her to hear it cry.

This reaction is not uncommon, she said. People will often treat robots like they are alive despite knowing that they’re not. They are responding on a visceral level to the combination of physicality and movement, she explained. A notable example: Soldiers have held funerals for fallen robots.

Paro, a robotic seal, recharging.

Paro, a robotic seal, recharging.

Darling finds this human reaction “awesome,” believing we can use it to foster social engagement in a therapeutic context, helping certain populations such as children with autism and seniors with dementia, for example.

“Companion pets” for seniors are already on the market, meant to give comfort and aid with loneliness. Paro, a baby seal robot, was developed in Japan, and there’s a less sophisticated robot cat by Hasbro. While the intent seems laudable, Darling said that some people feel it to be manipulative, and worry that companies could try to use the robot to influence behavior and collect personal data. On the other hand, she asked, if the robot shows positive therapeutic results, is it unethical to withhold it?

Collection of personal data and influence on behavior were common concerns for the emerging tech discussed by the panelists. In regards to social media and apps, neuroscientist Jay Giedd and theoretical neuroscientist and entrepreneur Vivienne Ming acknowledged privacy concerns, but also were enthusiastic about the quantitative data that could be gleaned from social media and apps; they might predict depression or a manic episode, possibly saving lives. Behavior such as socializing and travel, which decrease when a person is depressed, could be monitored, said Giedd.

In a virtual reality, patients might learn to face their phobias. But there could be long-term consequences, good and bad to using the technology, said professor of physics, neurology, and neurobiology Mayank Mehta. Limited research has been done on how virtual reality affects the brain, he explained. In his own research in rats using a non-invasive virtual reality environment, he was surprised to find that 60 percent of space-mapping neurons shut down in virtual reality compared with a real-word environment.

“We think that virtual reality is just like watching TV, but clearly it is more immersive,” he said. He wondered, will there be side effects to using the technology? While he doesn’t propose stopping the use of virtual reality, he thinks it needs to be investigated carefully for long-term consequences.

Since children and teenagers are target audiences for many of these technologies, bioethicist Hannah Maslen spoke about parents’ responsibility to carefully consider how they make decisions about biotech. In medical cases, such as the use of deep brain stimulation for chronic pain, medical principles can guide parents and potential patients–intervention should open more options than prevent. But what about in an educational setting? It’s not so clear, she said, and there also might be cognitive trade-offs.

On the whole, Thursday’s speakers seemed optimistic about the potential uses of these technological tools, but called for continued research and increased communication among scientists, engineers, and the public.

Ming also pointed out the need to ensure that not just the elites have access to emerging technologies. If just a few kids gain access to cognitive enhancement through technology, for example, “it doesn’t feel like a recoverable moment in US history,” she said.

INS plans to post a video of the event soon on its website. Stay tuned for more coverage from the International Neuroethics Society Meeting, and also for stories from the Society for Neuroscience conference.

—Ann L. Whitman

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