In the field of neuroscience, reality has already surpassed fiction.
Who could have imagined that it would one day be possible to implant false memories in an animal’s brain, or to dictate a text to a computer by using thought alone? This is now a reality – and the technological revolution is only just beginning.
These advances are promising when they make it possible to find treatments for mental or neurological pathologies, or when they give a totally paralysed patient the possibility of communicating, or regaining some mobility.
But the ethical questions that neuroscience raises are commensurate with the hopes it generates. This is all the more true as its range of applications extend far beyond the medical sector – to include marketing, education, and even video games.
To the extent that it becomes possible to read and transmit brain data, the issue of the exploitation of this data for commercial or malicious purposes becomes acute. There is a risk that these technologies will be used to monitor, manipulate, or even modify, our most private thoughts.
This is because neuroscience has the particularity of interacting directly with the brain – that is, with the part of ourselves at the very foundation of human identity, freedom of thought, free will, and privacy.
While there are laws to protect privacy and consumer rights, the specific threats related to neuroscience have not been legislated for. Conventions and treaties protecting human rights do not cover particular areas such as the protection of free will or mental privacy. With the exception of some countries – notably Chile and some others – few have begun to strengthen their legal arsenal to protect the “neurorights” of citizens.
It is therefore urgent to establish safeguards to fill these gaps and guarantee the effective protection of citizens against the possible use of their brain data. This is what UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee recommends in its latest report. And it is precisely the purpose of the debate led by UNESCO within the United Nations system to develop a global framework for the governance of neurotechnologies.