The Magna Cortica: A bill of rights for our future, implant-enhanced brains

By John Hewitt on May 14, 2014 at 12:30 pm

In 1215 the feudal barons in England imposed the Magna Carta upon King John. The document was designed not only to proclaim their liberties and protect their rights, but to constrain the seemingly unlimited scope of the King’s will. In a nod to the prescience of the Magna Carta and social expediency it spawned, a group of neurally-inclined futurists have begun to draft a similar constitution for our time. This new “Magna Cortica” has set for itself the task of defining a set of rights and restrictions to preempt potential abuses in the rapidly growing field of cognitive enhancement.

The Magna Cortica

1. The right to self-knowledge

2. The right to self-modification

3. The right to refuse modification

4. The right to modify/refuse to modify your children

5. The right to know who has been modified

The five points of the Magna Cortica, drawn up by Jamais Cascio of The Institute for the Future, may remind some of Issac Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics. The Cortica represents an excellent starting point. The rights to self knowledge, and to seek or to refuse self modification, appear somewhat obvious but provide the necessary foundation. The fourth point, the right to modify or refuse the same for our children, would increasingly loom in direct contradiction to the previous points as any child matured, but similarly lays the groundwork for where we might later set this bar. (Read: US military begins research into moral, ethical robots, to stave off Skynet-like apocalypse.)

I, Robot - killer robot

The proposed right to know who has been modified seems to be the one that may need further refinement. Clearly patrons would like to be assured that their tour bus driver is still capable of achieving sufficient REM sleep, but what one does at age, and independent of external effect, should ideally remain within the province of self. The problem with full public disclosure of who has been modded with what is not so much it’s futility, but rather — as we have seen in digital rights management — it is the greater injustice wrought through any attempt to enforce it. The right to know what others might have done to their brains, essentially their medical history, presently stands in direct contradiction to the social behemoth we might affectionately call the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) monster. That barely even knocks upon the door of other possible ethical incongruency.

The right to reasonable free speech, for example, does not exist independent from context. What we might speak (or type) can not be extricated from who it is spoken to, when and where it is spoken, and in our progressive times, by who speaks it. Might we therefore expect any more or less right to its complement, the right to non-disclosure? In other words the right not to speak and to maintain privacy? As we maintained in a recent post on stem cells, ethics does not just involve contradictions, it is the science of them. The best we can offer for now is to do exactly what we are doing: propose ideals on a public forum and let them compete for our minds as the hardware concerning them is realized and becomes commonplace.

Magna Cortica in that spirit we have asked for additional comment from Ayden Jacob the President of The Academy of Medical Ethics in Bio-Innovation. AMEBI has been grappling with the balance between increasing human capabilities while remaining within the bioethical zone of acceptable enhancements. With regards to the Magna Cortica, Ayden had this to say:

“It is with fervor and zeal that scientists, and society as whole, approaches this new horizon of innovation in the brain. We long to enhance our cognitive abilities at all costs, even when pharmacologic intervention may hinder us with unpleasant side effects. Philosophically speaking, man is made to develop into the greatest Man we can become. Scientifically speaking, man can become the most influential and powerful Man when technology and physiology are linked together within the human brain. As we aim to increase our cognitive abilities, whether that be to think smarter, faster, quicker or longer, it will be important to allow science to explore various opportunities at enhancing the brain’s lurking power. And to accomplish such a goal, many may feel we are tainting Nature. This is the debate. But it is only right that we give science the room, freedom, and ability to push us to the next level of human capabilities.”

There are significant concerns beyond the inter-citizen familiarity issues we have described. In particular, the very real problem of discordance between patient and device/implant maker needs to be dealt with. An example is the trouble one test subject had with his deep brain stimulation device in a trial conducted by St. Jude Medical in cooperation with Stanford. The video below serves as a cautionary warning to some of the issues that can arise with any transformative neurotechnology: Namely, if your brain’s functionality is significantly altered by a device, do you still own your brain and the work that it does?


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