/ 13 March 2024

Mind matters: Navigating the ethical frontier of neurotechnology

Neuralink Photo Illustration
Neuralink will aim to to plant chips in the brains of participants by which they will be able to control a computer or mobile device with their thoughts. (Photo by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Elon Musk is recruiting for Neuralink’s first human clinical trials in which it plans to plant chips in the brains of participants by which they will be able to control a computer or mobile device with their thoughts. 

The aim of this “seamless brain computer interface experience” is to restore the independence of people who have quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. 

This marks a significant leap forward in neurotechnology. The pioneering endeavour not only heralds a new era of medical and cognitive enhancement possibilities but also casts a spotlight on the urgent need for robust governance frameworks. 

South Africa, with its rich tapestry of cultural diversity and strong constitutional ethos, faces a unique set of challenges and opportunities in this domain. The governance of neurotechnologies must navigate a delicate balance between fostering innovation and ensuring ethical use, highlighting the profound implications of interfacing directly with the human brain — the seat of consciousness, creativity, identity and privacy.  

The advent of neurotechnologies introduces a paradigm shift in how we understand and interact with the human brain and what information we can extract from it, necessitating a re-evaluation of ethical standards distinct from general biomedical research. 

The primary concern revolves around the right to mental privacy. The potential for neurotechnologies to access and interpret neural activity warrants stringent safeguards against unauthorised intrusion into one’s thoughts and mental states. This is not merely a matter of protecting personal information but preserving human dignity, self-determination  and the freedom to think without undue repercussions.  

Incorporating neurodata protection within the framework of the Protection of Personal Information Act is crucial. Given the deeply personal and uniquely identifiable nature of neural data, classifying it as sensitive personal information is imperative. This will not only foster trust in neurotechnology research and adoption but also aligns with South Africa’s commitment to individual privacy and data protection.  

Moreover, the principle of cognitive freedom underscores the ethical imperative to support individuals’ rights to use neurotechnologies for personal enhancement, insofar as these do not infringe on others’ rights and wellbeing. 

This is in accordance with South Africa’s constitutional vision of dignity, understood as individual autonomy and self-actualisation. The promise of neurotechnologies to overcome cognitive and physical neurological limitations to enhance quality of life presents an optimistic vista for human development — provided it is navigated with ethical foresight.  

The complexity of neurotechnology projects calls for a specialised form of informed consent because they often entail the connection of human brains with the Internet of Things, that carries the risk of being hacked and unauthorised access to one’s thoughts, including its ability to alter or manipulate cognitive functions or personality. 

In addition, the removal of brain chips at the conclusion of clinical trials necessarily returns participants to their previous state of disability and dependence, with associated physical and psychological impacts often exacerbated as a result. 

Participants must be fully apprised of the unique risks and potential long-term changes to their cognitive or emotional states. This nuanced approach to consent underscores the transformative potential of neurotechnologies, particularly in therapeutic settings, and must respect the individual’s autonomy and right to self-determination.  

Maintaining individual agency in the era of neurotechnology is paramount. While these technologies offer an unprecedented ability to augment human decision-making, they also harbour unique possibilities for manipulation and must not undermine the individual’s control over their choices. 

This principle is deeply rooted in the South African constitutional understanding of personhood and human rights, emphasising the importance of safeguarding agency in the face of technological advancement.  

Ethical guidelines must also recognise and respect neurodiversity, acknowledging the spectrum of neurological experiences as intrinsic to the human condition. The promise of neurotechnology is not based on erasing these differences but in offering tools to navigate the world more effectively. This respect for neurodiversity aligns with the ethos of inclusivity and acceptance, enriching the societal tapestry.  

Finally, the preservation of personal identity is a critical ethical consideration. The potential for neurotechnologies to alter aspects of personality and cognition necessitates a careful evaluation of how interventions might impact an individual’s sense of self. It is imperative that these technologies enhance, rather than diminish, personal identity, ensuring that advancements in neurotechnology are leveraged for genuine human enrichment.  

In shaping the future of neurotechnology governance, South Africa stands on the brink of a bright new horizon. With thoughtful adherence to ethical guidelines tailored to the unique landscape of neurotechnology, our nation can harness these advancements to enrich human life. 

By championing mental privacy, protecting neurodata, embracing cognitive freedom, ensuring specialised consent, upholding individual agency, respecting neurodiversity and safeguarding personal identity, South Africa can lead the way in the ethical use of neurotechnology. 

This approach promises not only to safeguard our most fundamental human rights but also to unlock the full transformative potential of these technologies. As we navigate this exciting frontier, we do so with the optimism and conviction that, through conscientious governance, neurotechnology can flourish as a force for good, enhancing the human experience and propelling South Africa toward a future where technology and humanity converge in harmony.

Donrich Thaldar is a professor of law and Marietjie Botes is an honorary research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.