UNESCO issued a warning on Thursday about the potential threat to mental privacy posed by the rapid advancements in neurotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI). These developments include brain implants and scans that can delve into the inner workings of the mind. To address the human rights concerns arising from this convergence, the United Nations’ scientific and cultural agency has initiated the development of a global “ethical framework” at a conference held in Paris.
Neurotechnology is an expanding field focused on connecting electronic devices to the nervous system, primarily for the purpose of treating neurological disorders and restoring various functions like movement, communication, vision, and hearing.
The recent integration of AI algorithms with neurotechnology has propelled its progress to unprecedented levels, allowing for data processing and learning in ways previously unimaginable. Mariagrazia Squicciarini, an economist specializing in AI at UNESCO, described this as neurotech being put on steroids.
Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for social and human sciences, stressed that the convergence of neurotechnology and AI carries significant implications and potential harm. She stated that we are heading towards a future where algorithms will decipher people’s mental processes and directly manipulate the underlying mechanisms governing their intentions, emotions, and decisions.
In May, scientists in the United States demonstrated the ability to convert people’s thoughts into written words using brain scans and AI. However, this required subjects to spend extensive hours inside a large fMRI machine. Additionally, Elon Musk’s company Neuralink gained approval to conduct tests on humans using coin-sized brain implants in the same month. Musk’s primary goal with Neuralink is to prevent humans from being overwhelmed intellectually by AI, although he recently launched his own AI company called xAI.
Squicciarini clarified that UNESCO does not view neurotechnology as inherently negative. On the contrary, she highlighted its fantastic potential, such as enabling blind individuals to see again or allowing paralyzed individuals to regain mobility. However, due to the rapid advancement of neurotechnology, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed the necessity of ethical guidelines to safeguard human rights.
According to a UNESCO report co-authored by Squicciarini, investment in neurotech companies surged 22 times between 2010 and 2020, reaching $33.2 billion. The number of patents for neurotech devices doubled from 2015 to 2020, with the United States accounting for nearly half of all global patents. The market for neurotech devices is projected to reach $24.2 billion by 2027.