Neural technology: The ethics of probing the skull’s boundary

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John Milton.

WASHINGTON, May 6, 2017 — Poet and playwright John Milton (1608-1674) was cursed to “live in interesting times.” Oliver Cromwell, who successfully commanded military forces against King Charles I and signed his death warrant, later ruled his nation as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England.

Oliver Cromwell.

Although some modern historians paint Cromwell as a puritanical and genocidal maniac, Milton considered Cromwell’s rule a welcome relief to the arbitrary reign of kings.

“For if a king fear not God, we hold then our lives and estates by the tenure of his mere grace and mercy, as from a god, not a mortal magistrate.”

“Give me liberty to know,” said Milton, “to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience above all liberties.”


In his 1634 play “Comus,” Milton pits the evil sorcerer of the play’s title against a virtuous woman known only as “The Lady.” Although placed in an enchanted chair and harangued to give in to the joys of the flesh, The Lady resists.

“Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind,” she insists.

Marcello Ienca and Roberto Andomo, of the Institute for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Basel, cite Milton’s ode to the individual’s “conscience above all liberties” as championing “the idea that the mind is a kind of last refuge of personal freedom and self-determination.”

However, in their paper “Towards New Human Rights in the Age of Neuroscience and Neurotechnology” (HERE), the authors say because of “advances in neural engineering, brain imaging, and pervasive neurotechnology, the mind might no longer be such an unassailable fortress.”

They believe brainwashing is possible thanks to “transcranial magnetic stimulation” (TMS), which they say affects regions of the brain “responsible for social prejudice and political and religious beliefs.” TMS can even make its test subjects “more positive towards criticisms to their country” or “enhance” their “belief in an afterlife.”

“The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli

“Wearable” devices, like the Apple iPhone accessory headset XWave, says the company website, allows the user to sense the “faintest electrical impulses transmitted through your skull” and allows you “to detect attention and meditation levels, as well as train your mind to control things. Objects in a game … lights in your living room … the possibilities are limited to only the power of your imagination.”

Or those of future hackers interested in accessing your brain as a means to access your bank accounts.

Ienca and Andomo contend that “malicious agents … could use neuromodulation to exert malevolent forms of mind control,” such as “leaders of authoritarian regimes who want to enforce political compliance and prevent rebellion.”

They advise the “expansion of the human right framework to the neurotechnology dimension … on other levels of law such as international humanitarian law, criminal law, tort law, property and consumer law.”

Bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe said,

“The skull should be designed as a domain of absolute privacy. No one should be able to probe an individual’s mind against their will. We should not permit it with a court order. We should not permit it for military or national security. We should forgo the use of technology under coercive circumstances even though using it may serve the public good.”

To not do so, as Milton observed, would violate the “conscience above all liberties.”

Read more from Stephen Nemo at CommDigiNews

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