The Bioethics Observatory of the Catholic University of Valencia (UCV) held the Congress on New Frontiers in Neuroethics in July.
Julio Tudela, director of the Bioethics Observatory, has coordinated the event in which experts from international universities have participated. They analyzed the ethical dilemmas posed by neuroethics.
Concrete solutions to social problems of our time
The presentations at the first round table, entitled “Neuroethics from a medical perspective” and moderated by Dr. Enrique Burguete, were given by Alberto Carrara, of the Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum (Rome, Italy) and José María Domínguez, of the University of Seville (Spain).
Alberto Carrara, affirmed that neuroethics has the purpose of “understanding the implications of neurosciences and the interpretations of the same sciences of the nervous system -which include sciences related to the mind- for human self-understanding, and the dangers and perspectives of their applications”.
In his speech, Carrara reviewed the contributions to neuroethics of the German neuropsychiatrist Anneliese Alma Pontius. “The principle of neuroethics developed by Pontius according to her medical-clinical model rooted in the biological constitution is a very valuable tool. She comes to our aid to reflect in an interdisciplinary way and is rooted in neuroscience and its interpretations. In addition, it can effectively contribute to providing concrete solutions to numerous social problems of our time”.
In this sense, the Italian biotechnologist pointed out as possible contributions “from the pseudocognitive improvements through psychotropic drugs in healthy subjects to the aspirations imposed on child models.”
Brain structures involved in moral behavior
Subsequently, Jose María Domínguez defended in his presentation that a person’s behavior has a brain basis. In his opinion, morality is one of the most complex characteristics of human judgment and behavior of the person.
“There have been several investigations on the areas of the brain involved in the moral behavior of the person, among which the prefrontal, cingulate and temporal cortexes stand out. The activities of the subcortical emotional centers are regulated by the prefrontal cortex, planning and supervising moral decisions, and when their functionality is altered due to brain damage, aggressive-impulsive behavior can be generated in the individual”. “The temporal lobe is involved in the theory of mind, and its functional alteration has been associated with violent psychopathological behaviors. The cingulate cortex mediates the conflict between the emotional and rational components of moral reasoning. Other brain structures involved in the moral behavior of the person are the subcortical nuclei such as the amygdala, the hippocampus and basal ganglia”.
“After a severe brain injury, changes in personality and intellectual-emotional characteristics of the person are frequent.
Brain damage can occur as a result of various factors, such as traumatic brain injury, stroke, or neurodegenerative diseases. The effects of brain damage can be profound and far-reaching, affecting cognitive, emotional, and social functioning. The effects of brain damage can be profound and far-reaching, affecting cognitive, emotional, and social functioning. The evaluation of moral responsibility in people who have suffered significant brain damage is an area of particular relevance in the field of ethics”, asserted Dominguez.
On the other hand, the expert reflected on how changes in moral behavior can also affect the individual’s quality of life, as well as their relationships with family and friends.
Mental integrity, vulnerability and neuroprotection
The second round table, entitled “Neuroethics from a legal perspective”, moderated by Dr. Pilar María Estellés, was composed of Luca Valera, from the University of Valladolid (Spain) and Roberto Andorno, from the University of Zurich (Switzerland).
Luca Valera recalled how in recent years there have been attempts to protect human identity, through national and international regulations due to the technological possibility of manipulating brain activities (neuromodulation).
“The question of the legal protection of the mental integrity of the human person is, without a doubt, a hot topic, due to the recent increase in technological interventions in the human brain (such as Deep brain stimulation or neural interfaces),” stated. Valera.
In his presentation he clarified the concept of mental integrity, explaining the relationship that this can have with human identity and, therefore, with the recognition of the need for its protection. “In this sense, we must also focus on the right to a healthy and safe environment.”
The researcher proposed that the concept of vulnerability should be the indicator to ethically and bioethically evaluate possible interventions on the human brain (as well as on the human body), in order to improve the cognitive possibilities of the human subject itself.
Four new human rights
Regarding Roberto Andorno, he stressed the need to “create four new human rights in response to the challenges of neurotechnologies.”
Andorno and Marcello Ienca proposed the incorporation of these rights in a research article with considerable international repercussion: “It is urgent that the rights to cognitive freedom, mental privacy, mental integrity and psychological continuity. In addition, all states must adapt their legal regulations to respond to the neurotechnological challenge”.
Andorno also drew attention to the importance of “informed consent”, the recognition of neuronal data “as sensitive personal data” and “preventing neurotechnologies from being used to influence freedom of self-determination and thought”. Thus, “human beings have the right to their personal identity, without it being altered by third parties through neurodevices, unless there is informed consent in this regard.”
“We must take precautions against neurodiscrimination and algorithmic biases in devices based on artificial intelligence, which may increase the risk of this new discrimination occurring. In the same way, states must be cautious regarding the authorization of neurotechnologies for the purpose of enhancing the cognitive abilities of healthy people. They could cause problems of a social nature, by giving an unfair advantage to neuropotentiated individuals over the rest in school and university performance, or in access to a job, for example,” he said.
In addition, he stressed the need to promote “equitable access to the benefits of neurotechnologies in the health field”, Andorno has urged people in positions of political responsibility to “establish mechanisms for effective protection of the rights associated with neurotechnologies”.
Artificial intelligence and consciousness
The third round table, entitled “New challenges for neuroethics” and moderated by Dr. Gloria Casanova, included the participation of Juan Pedro Núñez, from Comillas Pontifical University (Madrid, Spain) and Patrici Calvo, from Jaume I University (Castellón, Spain).
During his speech, Juan Pedro Núñez referred to the psychological problems that are looming around what is known as transhumanism or post-humanism. “The future of cyborg humans, with brains assisted by Artificial Intelligence (AI) devices, could bring some undesirable consequences. If we look at how we are affected by the interaction with the devices and applications that the current AI market makes available to us, many of these consequences seem inevitable,” he warned.
In addition, the psychologist focused his speech on the advantages and disadvantages of the technological evolution associated with the interaction with brain activity. “The advantages are many, but there will be risks and costs, many of which can be foreseen” he explained.
Another major question addressed by the specialist is whether machines may one day have consciousness and what will be the relevance of this aspect, since most intelligent machines today lack consciousness, but perform intelligent functions and operate in a way in which it seems that consciousness is no longer relevant, at least for certain functions.
In Núñez’s opinion, AI will go very far, since it is the area of science and technology that has historically evolved the most compared to others, but it is not possible to predict how far it will go because of its speed of progress and because there is no previous experience in this field.
Less free, less autonomous
During his speech on moral neurolearning and artificial intelligence, Patrici Calvo explained that “we are seeing algorithmic paternalism and human agency is being modulated with this technology; therefore, we are becoming less free, less autonomous. Algorithmic culture, human obsolescence, this idea that the human being is obsolete comes with a constant bombardment of news. Every day there are news items of this type: We have been surpassed by machines, and in the end we are believing it”.
“There is an entire culture, biases that discriminate, a tyranny of algorithms and technological despotism. It is the technologies that are using the power of data to modify free will, to make us do what they want us to do. All the data are in centers that store them and are controlled by a dozen companies around the world, a massive surveillance of privacy. They are intruding on privacy” he said.
In Calvo’s opinion “algorithmic reification directly attacks human dignity. We are no longer people, we no longer have value, we once again have a price. We are now machines of constant flow of massive data and metadata. The value of the person is quantified according to the data that he can generate so that artificial intelligence can be developed” he stressed.
Finally, Dr. Tudela gave a brief summary of the papers presented and brought the Conference to a close.