Brain Computer Interfaces and Agency
This post is part of a series featuring authors who have received the Neuroethics R01 (Research Project Grants) supported by the NIH BRAIN Initiative. These research projects specifically address prominent ethical issues arising from emerging technologies and advancements in human brain research.
|Image courtesy of Needpix.com
“I’ve begun to wonder what’s me and what’s the depression, and what’s the stimulator…it blurs to the point where I’m not sure…frankly, who I am.”
|Image courtesy of Pixabay
Human agency is the ability to act and take ownership of experiences and actions. Agency gives people a sense of control over their minds and bodies and is an important part of the human experience. But agency is a complicated phenomenon that relies on or is constituted by at least several other features, including responsibility, privacy, authenticity and trust. People want to feel that they are intentionally acting rather than merely being acted upon. This means that when a person uses a robotic arm to reach their coffee cup, they feel responsibility over the actions of the device. It means that when a person with Locked-In Syndrome types out of a message using a BCI, she does so from a background of privacy, such that her thoughts and body are only accessible to those with whom she shares them. It means that the teenager with anorexia feels that the BCI does not undermine her authenticity, that she continues as a recognizable self. Finally, it means that the war veteran can trust that the feel of her child’s hand is reliable and not misleading. In our view, these concepts of responsibility, privacy, authenticity, and trust are crucial to understanding human agency and are uniquely implicated by different types of BCI technologies.
|Image courtesy of Pixabay
Unlike previous studies, we are exploring BCI technologies across modalities. Many of the early studies around end user perspectives for DBS were isolated to one disease condition. Understanding experiences across our four modalities—motor, sensory, communication, and psychiatry—will allow us to consider, for instance, whether privacy matters in the same ways to users addressing issues of communication compared to those treating motor impairments, or whether concerns about authenticity arise in the context of movement in similar ways to how they come up in the psychiatric realm.
- Goering et al. (2017) “Staying in the Loop: Relational Agency and Identity in Next-Generation DBS for Psychiatry” AJOB Neuroscience 8(2): 59-70.
- Kellmeyer et al. (2016) “Effects of Closed-Loop Devices on the Autonomy and Accountability of Persons and Systems” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics
- Steinert et al. (2018) “Doing Things with Thoughts: Brain-Computer Interfaces and Disembodied Agency” Philosophy and Technology https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-018-0308-4
Sara Goering is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington, Seattle, and co-leads the Neuroethics Thrust in the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT). She is also a member of the Program on Ethics, the Disability Studies Program, and adjunct faculty in the Bioethics & Humanities Department. Her work in the Neuroethics Thrust focuses on issues of agency and identity in relation to neural technology (both DBS and BCI), and emphasizes the importance of engagement with disabled people, who are often the intended end-users of the technology.
Eran Klein is a neurologist specializing in dementia at Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU) and the Portland VA Health Care System (PVAHCS). He co-leads the Neuroethics thrust at the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) at the University of Washington. He works at the intersection of neurology, neuroscience, and philosophy.
Andreas Schönau is a post-doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy and Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington. His past research focused on the clarification of conceptual theories and empirical methods in philosophical and neuroscientific research, the interdisciplinary combination of their respective insights, and the generation of conclusions towards understanding the phenomenon of free will from an action-theoretical perspective.
Want to cite this post?
Dasgupta, I., Schönau, A., Klein, E., & Goering, S. (2019). Brain Computer Interfaces and Agency. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2019/12/brain-computer-interfaces-and-agency.html