Neurorights: the danger of brain implants and mind-reading technologies lands in Congress | Science


Rafael Yuste feels a weight on his shoulders similar to that of Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan project that developed the atomic bomb. In his case, the weapon What keeps him up at night – and which has not yet been detonated – is neurotechnology, a field in which he is a first-rate expert. This Spanish neuroscientist at Columbia University, who convinced the White House to invest hundreds of millions to map the brain, knows that mind-reading technologies are real and dangerous. Implants to connect the brain to machines, devices that induce memories, devices that read thoughts: they are already being developed in laboratories around the world and by companies such as Elon Musk, which has already implanted its first chip in a human. That's why, since 2017 Yuste travels around the world to get governments to protect neurorights, the rights of the human mind, with laws. She has already achieved it in ChileBrazil, Mexico and the United States. Next week it lands with all that conviction in the Congress of Deputies, so that Spain joins that avant-garde club and becomes the first European country that legally defends the privacy of thoughts.

“I am going with the best intention in the world, to achieve a consensus of all political parties. It is part of my duties to convince the entire spectrum, from the independentists to Vox, because this is what we have achieved in other countries,” Yuste explains by videoconference. On Monday the 26th, the neuroscientist will present the film to the honorable Members Theater of Thought (theater of thought), which he filmed together with the famous filmmaker Werner Herzog to warn about the risks of neurotechnologies for privacy, identity and free will. On Tuesday the 27th, behind closed doors with the deputies, there will be a dialogue with specialists about the ethical implications of advances in neuroscience.

“The objective is not only to have a good time discussing this issue, but to explore the possibility of drafting a bill in Spain that covers this area, promoting a specific protection law, as is happening in other places,” acknowledges Yuste, president of the Neurorights Foundation. “This way it will be incorporated, although late, but better late than never, into everything that is happening in the rest of the world with this issue,” explains the Spaniard, co-director of the Neurotechnology Center of Columbia. Yuste, from Madrid, regrets that many people believe that he is Chilean, because he managed to move the legislators of that country before those of his own.

“This is a topic that everyone magically agrees on because no one likes the idea of ​​having their thoughts read,” he says, laughing. The neuroscientist is not afraid of the difficulties of Spanish politics in reaching consensus: he has achieved it in political environments as polarized as Chile, Brazil, Mexico and the USA. In this last country he has achieved his most recent success, this month: The State of Colorado will ratify the world's first brain protection law, technically speaking. In Chile and in Brazil It was achieved before, but not through specific regulations, but with a more abstract recognition in constitutional amendments.

The Spanish scenario for joining left and right is conducive, since they have already agreed on what is important, money, with the signature of two of the most confrontational administrations in Spain, those led by Pedro Sánchez and Isabel Díaz Ayuso. The headquarters of the development of neurorights will be the future National Center for Neurotechnology, Spain Neurotechwhich will have a staff of 400 employees and financing of 200 million until 2037: the 60% will be provided by the central government and the European funds and 40% the Community of Madrid (78 million) and the Autonomous University of Madrid, on whose campus it will be located.

In this National Neurotechnology Center there will be a team of 30 people, “the most important group in the world”, in the words of Yuste, “working in the field of neurorights from the scientific-medical, technological, but also legal point of view, ethical, philosophical, with the intention of taking the approach to human rights to embed it in the midst of neurotechnology throughout the world.” The scientific promotion of this center, together with Yuste, is carried out by José Carmena, from the University of California-Berkeley, and Álvaro Pascual-Leone, from Harvard University.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso and Rafael Yuste in the laboratories of Columbia University, in New York (USA), in October 2023.Madrid's community

Ayuso has shown special interest in the Spain Neurotech initiative, since he visited Yuste in Columbia when he was in New York in October. And the Sánchez Government has promoted the value of these new mental rights from the beginning. The Secretary of State for Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence included neurorights in its 2021 Digital Rights Charter (point XXVI). And Vice President Nadia Calviño took advantage of the rotating presidency of the EU so that thirty countries recognized them in October 2023 in the Declaration of León, “first European document that establishes ethical principles for the responsible development and use of neurotechnologies, with a human-centered approach.” A spokesperson for the Secretary of State also claims other efforts that have “contributed to strengthening the debate on neurorights at the European and international level.” But there is still nothing in Spain with regulatory status.

Office C

Yuste's meeting with the deputies is facilitated by the Congressional Office of Science and Technology, the call Office C, which is dedicated to advising through reports on specific topics to improve the knowledge of the Legislature on technical issues. In their latest round of reports they include one about advances in neuroscience, and next week's meeting coincides with the presentation of these documents in the chamber. Pascual-Leone, Mavi Sánchez Vives (from ICREA) and Liset Menéndez de la Prida (from the Cajal Institute, CSIC) will also participate in the closed-door debate on Tuesday, who have collaborated in preparing the report for the deputies, such as himself. And you.

The document also includes neurorights, which their promoters defined in an article in the magazine Nature of 2017, and which today are summarized in five: right to personal identity, for integrating brains with technology and the influence of algorithms; to free will, because technological tools compromise human autonomy; to mental privacy, the most urgent, because brain information can now be collected; to equitable access, so as not to increase existing inequalities; and to protection against bias, to correct biases in algorithms and prevent discrimination.

“Neurotechnology goes directly to the essence of the human being, which is our brain, which is why it is very normal for us to approach the problem from the point of view of human rights,” says Yuste. So far, the only objections he has encountered in his proselytizing have been from some corporate pressure groups: “Everyone agrees when you tell them, except for some parts of the technology industry that see it as a threat and who do not “They want no regulation.” In any case, he assumes that his job “is to talk to everyone and convince them, so that it will be much easier if a bill is presented later, so that it has quick support and goes without problems.”

In his documentary, Herzog asks a scientist: “Could you in the future read my mind and know my next film before I even film it?” While troubling questions like this are resolved, some scientists are hoping for legislation before we can read—and manipulate—Herzog's mind. And that of any other human.

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