Chile, the NeuroRights International Lab (Originally in Spanish)

October 08, 2020

Chile, the NeuroRights International Lab (Originally in Spanish)

The Southamerican country is the first one in the world to promote a legislation that adresses the risks of neurotechnology, such as the loss of mental privacy.

Chile will be the pioneer of neuro-rights in the world. The Senate of the South American country has presented legislation to address the risks of neurotechnology, such as the loss of mental privacy. It is an exception in the midst of a polarized political climate: senators from all sectors, supported by organizations from different sectors and the academic and scientific world, have promoted the proposal, which had the support of Rafael Yuste, Spanish researcher, professor at Columbia University (USA) and promoter of the world's largest project on deciphering the brain, the Brain initiative. Senator Guido Girardi, who is the chair of the Senate's Challenges of the Future Committee, is confident that the Chilean Parliament will pass the new laws this year.

"We cannot make the mistakes of the past and use the advances in science to harm human beings and our planet, such as the atomic bomb, the generation of plastic and pesticides," said scientist Cecilia Hidalgo, president of the Academy of Sciences of Chile, during the presentation of the legislative projects. In the meeting, where the presidents of the two main universities in the country –the University of Chile and the Catholic University– participated, both Yuste and Miguel Ángel Moratinos, the United Nations High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, spoke of the “historic step that Chile is taking.”  Darío Gil, IBM research director, indicated that "the ethical and social aspects of technology, neurotechnology and artificial intelligence should be discussed in all parliaments."

The Chilean Congress will begin to debate about two projects. First, an amendment to the Constitution that defines mental identity for the first time in history as a right that cannot be manipulated and that states that any intervention, even for health reasons, must be legally regulated. Second, a bill that includes the five fundamental principles that the Morningside Group, coordinated by Yuste and made up of 25 international specialists in neuroscience, law and ethics, worked on. This team calls on governments to create new laws to address the risks of neurotechnology.

Identity, freedom and privacy

The Chilean bill protects the rights to personal identity, free will, mental privacy, equitable access to technologies that augment human capacities, and the right to protection against bias and discrimination. "The education of citizens is forced with regard to the consequences of technology," said Yuste. “Chile, if both projects are approved, will be a pioneer in the world, a model to follow. The OECD, UNESCO, the United Nations and the technology companies themselves look at it with magnifying glass,” added the scientist, who believes that Chile can take the lead because it has an agile legal system and, although it is a relatively small country (17 million inhabitants), it has highly developed institutions.

Too late for social media

"Currently we have to live with the negative consequences of social media, but it is too late to go back to the beginning," said Yuste from New York. He claims he does not want the same to happen in his field, neuroscience, "which is even more important than social media, because it is related to the manipulation of brain activity, which is the physical and scientific basis of the human mind."

He explained that neuroscience is beginning to access the essential aspects of the human mind: our thoughts, perceptions, emotions, memory, that is, what we, Homo sapiens, are. "Therefore," he said, "it is important to be cautious and put a li to technology, before it is too late." He considers it a matter that must be regulated in a hurry: “Some people say it is too early and others say it is too late. But that technology companies have joined the neurotechnology race with billions of dollars in the last year is a matter of urgency. "

Machines have already begun to read thoughts, although in a primitive way. Yuste himself, whose Brain project is financed for about 6,000 million dollars, managed in 2019 to manipulate the behavior of mice by targeting certain neurons. At Columbia, a colleague of his developed a wireless visual prosthesis for the blind with a million electrodes that connects a person to the network. The US Army research agency funded a device that could create mentally augmented soldiers by stimulating up to 100,000 neurons.

Ongoing projects

Tech companies are working against the clock because they bet that the new iPhone will be a non-invasive brain-computer interface. Facebook has invested about a billion dollars in a company that connects the brain to computers, and Microsoft has invested the same amount in Elon Musk's artificial intelligence initiative, which aims to help patients with paralysis or amputated limbs control their face expressions and movement or to see and hear only with the brain. He has not hidden, however, that the ultimate goal is to connect us directly to machines to improve ourselves with artificial intelligence. The Chinese project - three times larger than the American one - has allowed advances that make it possible, for example, to measure the level of concentration or stress of public drivers.

Despite these necessary regulations, in the virtual presentation of the legislative plan, organized yesterday from the Chilean capital, there was consensus on the benefits of neurotechnology. For Senator Girardi, promoter of the Congress of the Future –an event held in Chile where avant-garde issues are reflected on–, “Humanity will not be able to survive or face challenges without science and technology that, in turn, can destroy humans". It was the parliamentarian who, under the clear sky of the Atacama desert in northern Chile less than two years ago, had a coffee with Yuste and they thought: “If the regulation of neurotechnology is one of the central challenges of the future of Humanity, why don't we make it happen in Chile?”

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