Brain science is moving forward rapidly with exciting new discoveries and significant advances in technology. As the field converges with engineering, genomics, medicine, advanced computing and artificial intelligence, new neurotechnologies offer the potential to understand the healthy and diseased brain more deeply than ever before. For example, brain-computer interfaces, in combination with new imaging techniques and powerful computational algorithms, allow researchers to record brain activity, decode that activity, and even generate synthetic speech. Advanced brain implant tools provide scientists with a window into brain structures and neural activity that are critical to movement and mood and can provide stimulation to alleviate symptoms of chronic health conditions and diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and depression.
These remarkable advances in our ability to observe and change brain activity are significant to understanding how the brain works. Yet these cutting-edge tools also raise unique and pressing ethical, legal and societal issues. Fundamental questions arise in areas that are critically relevant to individuals and societies, including the privacy of thoughts, human enhancement, the regulation and marketing of direct-to-consumer devices, the vulnerability of cognitive patterns for commercial or political manipulation, and inequalities in use and access.
Attention to responsible innovation is especially important with the emergence of major investments in large-scale brain initiatives around the world, which seek to advance our understanding of the brain. Currently, there are seven existing and emerging large-scale national-level brain research projects around the globe (IBI, 2020; GNS 2018) and they form the International Brain Initiative. These include the Australian Brain Alliance, Canadian Brain Research Strategy, the China Brain Project, the EU Human Brain Project, the Korea Brain Initiative, Japan Brain/MINDS, and the US Brain Initiative representing an investment of over $7 billion USD across all initiatives. In the swiftly changing landscape of neuroscience innovation, governments, scientists, clinicians, technology innovators and companies have looked for guidance on how to reap the benefits of these advances while alleviating the risks they pose to individuals and society from the outset. Rather than reactionary ethics, these groups want to implement anticipatory ethics – tools and practices that will enable the science and innovation to continue.
International standards adopted to help with responsible neurotechnology development and governance
In December 2019, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) formally adopted an OECD Recommendation on Responsible Innovation in Neurotechnology. This recommendation aims to help governments and innovators anticipate the ethical, legal and societal challenges raised by new neurotechnologies, while continuously promoting innovation in the field.
The OECD is important for this type of statement because this intergovernmental organization is one of those at the heart of international cooperation. The member countries work with partners and organizations around the world to address pressing policy challenges of our time. Nine principles are at the core of the recommendation:
The unanimous adoption of these recommendations by all 36 OECD member countries is significant because this serves as a legal instrument, equivalent as soft law in many countries. Furthermore, this marks the first international standard in this area, and aims to help governments, universities, companies and investors to plan for responsible development and governance of neurotechnologies.
Partnering to advance science for the benefit of humanity
The Kavli Foundation collaborated with OECD in the context of our support and management of the International Brain Initiative, which aims to catalyze and advance neuroscience through international collaboration and knowledge sharing. Through this work, we could see a clear need for developing a framework that outlines what is viewed as responsible innovation in neurotechnology and incorporates these viewpoints from large-scale brain initiatives around the world. We also knew it had to be done by a global organization with credibility and influence, and through the support of an independent partner. We found a champion in the OECD. They were strong partners to work with us to bring member countries, and other key stakeholders, together to discuss the opportunities and challenges in responsible innovation. As one of the earliest supporters of this OECD project (and the only private philanthropic supporter), we found that listening closely to the needs of the scientific community and then acting early to catalyze this effort was critical to draw attention and global support for responsible and considerate use of neurotechnologies.
Caroline Montojo, Ph.D., joined The Kavli Foundation in 2015 where she now serves as Co-Director of Science and Director of Brain Initiatives. Dr. Montojo is deeply involved in catalytic efforts to advance science, including the U.S. BRAIN Initiative and the International Brain Initiative.