Government urged to investigate ethics and applications of brain, body and machine-merging technology

09 September 2019


The UK government should launch a national investigation into neural interface technologies to stimulate innovation and allow the public to shape the field, which could transform medicine and human interaction in the coming decades, the Royal Society has said.

In a report launched today – iHuman: Blurring lines between mind and machine - leading scientists lay out the life-changing opportunities, and challenges, of the brain-computer devices.

The report highlights the role the UK could play as a world leader in these technologies. It is also the first piece of work to explore these ethical questions in depth and propose actions to ensure they deliver on their potential.

Neural interfaces are devices implanted in the body, or worn externally, which are capable of recording or stimulating activity in the brain and peripheral nervous system.

This offers a new frontier for treating conditions like dementia, paralysis, mental health conditions or obesity. While recent announcements from ‘Big Tech’ firms and entrepreneurs have shown their potential to change how we communicate, and interact with technology.

As a result, the report’s expert steering group says ministers should act swiftly to understand the ethical risks and ensure regulations are fit to make the UK a global leader in the field.

“The applications for neural interfaces are as unimaginable today as the smartphone was a few decades ago,” said report co-chair Christofer Toumazou FRS FREng FMedSci, Regius Professor of Engineering and Chair in Biomedical Circuit Design, Imperial College London.

“They could bring huge economic benefits to the UK and transform sectors like the NHS, public health and social care, but if developments are dictated by a handful of companies then less commercial applications could be side-lined.

“That is why we are calling on the government to launch a national investigation into this emerging field, to identify the UK’s priorities and let the public help shape how the technology develops and where we want it to take us.”

Dr Tim Constandinou, Director of the Next Generation Neural Interfaces (NGNI) Lab, Imperial College London and co-chair of the report, said: “By 2040 neural interfaces are likely to be an established option to enable people to walk after paralysis and tackle treatment-resistant depression, they may even have made treating Alzheimer’s disease a reality.

“While advances like seamless brain-to-computer communication seem a much more distant possibility, we should act now to ensure our ethical and regulatory safeguards are flexible enough for any future development.

“In this way we can guarantee these emerging technologies are implemented safely and for the benefit of humanity.”

Harnessing the possibilities from neural interfaces

The UK has a proven track record in promoting rapid and responsible implementation of innovative new technologies, such as mitochondrial replacement therapy and pre-implantation genetic testing. 

Combined with the NHS, a dynamic life sciences sector and thriving creative industries – in particular gaming - the UK is perfectly positioned to identify and implement new applications for neural interfaces.

The Royal Society is proposing the government use this emerging field as a test case for a new regulatory approach, which could accelerate development of innovative technology in the future.

It is recommending:

  • A ‘national investigation’ of the ethical issues presented by neural interfaces, to address questions of what data should be collected, how it is kept safe, and the acceptability of enhancements.
  • Ministers work with industry and universities to create a UK Neural Interface Ecosystem which encourages innovation and collaboration in this field.
  • Government and the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) should trial new ways of encouraging innovation to prevent a monopoly by “Big Tech” firms. This could include a “sandbox” approach for new medical devices to demonstrate their safety and efficacy in a controlled environment.
  • Giving the public a clear voice in shaping how this technology is used and regulated for the public good and opting citizens out of having their neural data shared as a default.

A public dialogue exercise led by the Royal Society found strong support for neural interfaces in situations where they enable patients to recover something that has been lost due to injury or a medical condition; but less support for the technology when it is used to enhance functions such as memory, concentration or physical skills among healthy people.

Looking ahead

External and internal neural interfaces are already being used in medical conditions from stroke rehabilitation to epilepsy and commercial products promising better appetite control, or improved sleep and focus are already a reality.

There are no internally-implanted interfaces licensed outside of medicine, but this may only be a matter of time.

In July, tech mogul Elon Musk announced that as early as 2020 his company, Neuralink, could apply to start human trials in the US using ultrafine electrodes inserted in the brain to allow people with locked-in syndrome or paralysis to control a computer or phone.

While Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg has expressed interest in “telepathic typing” and the company is supporting research that aims to create an external headset able to transcribe a vocabulary of 1,000 words, at a rate of 100-words per minute, just by thinking.

The Royal Society expert working group says there is a possibility that, in future, “people could become telepathic to some degree” as more sophisticated neural interfaces emerge.

However, the most advanced attempts to send thoughts to date are at the level of AI recognising simple brain patterns which correspond to pre-trained words or answers.