In my work at Singularity University, one of the constant concerns I hear from the public is that policymakers and regulators simply cannot keep up with the pace of accelerating technological change, and that this might result in unintended harm to the public. Indeed, over the last few years governments and policymakers around the world have been caught off guard by issues ranging from the arrival of the first genetically engineered babies to the unexpected impact of social networks on elections to how to respond to everything from cryptocurrencies to 3D printed guns.
While it is easy to assume we must live in a world where policymaking will always play catch up to technology, this need not be the case. Instead, policymakers and regulators can work ahead of the curve. In fact, The Organization for the Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), one of the world’s most influential policy shaping organizations established to promote prosperity, equality and opportunity, has done exactly that.
On December 11, 2019 the OECD published a set of high level policy recommendations for Responsible Innovation in Neurotechnology. While the field of neurotechnology has existed for decades, over the last few years exponential technologies have made headway in areas that were previously considered science fiction, including mind-reading, telepathy, and potentially the merging of consciousness among different beings.
For example, in 2014, Juliano Pinto, a parapalegic with complete paralysis of the lower trunk kicked a soccer ball during the World Cup in Brazil. He did so with the help of a cap that read his brain activity connected to a robotic exoskeleton that moved his body, developed by the Brazilian neuroscientist Dr. Miguel Nicolelis. In 2017, Facebook showcased their progress in building devices that could allow people to type by reading their brains and in 2019, NPR published an article on computer assisted telepathy featuring how the University of Washington’s Center for Neurotechnology has succeed in networking human minds together, and also noted the work of Elon Musk and Bryan Johnson in advancing human cognition through brain implants in their respective companies.
As these technologies continue to advance, they offer great promise in the field of healthcare, especially in addressing challenges such as paralysis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. They also open new possibilities for how people engage in the future of work and learning (check out Singularity University’s graphic novel on the Future of Learning, which showcases how neurotechnologies might immerse students into futuristic digital learning environments to improve the learning experience).
At the same time, we know these technologies create enormous new ethical questions and potential for disruption. We do not fully understand the consequences of merging our minds with machines or, for that matter, other minds. How will we think about privacy and brain data, especially if external sensors could easily pick up our brain activity and use software to understand what we are thinking? Could a company or airline require us to give access to our brain data as part of a security measure? Will we be able to share our university education with millions of other people just as easily as we might upload a blog or video to the Internet today? What will happen if the wealthy can afford access to intelligence augmenting neurotechnologies but poor people cannot? What if one company gains a global market share in selling one type of intelligence and other types of intelligence are overlooked or lost entirely? How will our economy and employment work if the knowledge in our heads is as freely available as knowledge on the Internet? Could a thief put sensors around me and steal my thoughts without me even knowing it?
Given this, the work of the OECD in creating these guidelines before such technologies are released at scale is enormously important. While I encourage you to read the guidelines for yourself, in general the guidelines recognize that while neurotechnologies are important for healthcare, we must also take into account topics such as privacy, safety, inclusivity, and the possibility of unintended or misused technology. Furthermore, the guidelines call for appropriate oversight and ways for society to deliberate the new technologies. Ultimately, the guidelines remind us that what is at stake is nothing less than our cognitive liberty, our autonomy, our very sense of identity as humans, and our freedom of thought. We must remember what is at stake as we work with these new technologies.
How can other policymaking and regulatory organizations stay ahead of the exponential curve?
The OECD’s guidelines were developed by one of their units, the Working Party on Biotechnology, Nanotechnology and Converging Technologies, over a five-year process. This group was set up to specifically deal with emerging technologies that would have policy implications. According to David Winickoff, who is a Senior Policy Analyst with the unit and whom I reached out to for this article, the process involved a few countries taking leadership roles within the group. The group then hosted a series of workshops and with accompanying reports over the years which all fed into the resulting guidelines.
This is a straight-forward approach that other policy leaders and governments can take. It’s also important to note that the group started five years in advance. This can be a challenging task with emerging technologies, as people often think they are further away than they really are. This is one of the key messages that we try to help people understand at Singularity University—that digital technologies behave on an exponential timeline rather than a linear timeline—so we have less time than we think in preparing for their arrival.
One of the key lessons we can take from the OECD’s work is that when policy organizations get out ahead of the technology, we are actually left with the best of both worlds. We can have the benefits of the most cutting edge technologies, and we can protect our most cherished values: our freedom, our dignity, our identity and our humanity. Let’s combine our best technologies with our best thinking and values to create a future we all desire. We know how to do it.