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Will Neurotech Change What It Means to Be Human?

Its co-creator, Taryn Southern, is best known for her music and committed YouTube following; she got the idea for the documentary when the television series Black Mirror and Westworld were new hits, she says: “I wanted to see a film made with a more techno-optimistic attitude on the realities of these treatments.”

Southern, in partnership with documentary filmmaker Elena Gaby, constructed the film around the stories of three people they count among the world’s first cyborgs—each of whom has navigated physical limitations using neurosurgical implants: Bill, who is paralyzed from the neck down, has a temporary brain-computer interface installed in his skull as part of an experimental effort to reconnect his brain to paralyzed muscles. Stephen, who is blind, tries a retinal implant that connects to electrodes in the brain. And Anne, who has Parkinson’s Disease, is considering deep brain stimulation (DBS)—a procedure by which electrodes are implanted in the brain to help control some of the condition’s debilitating symptoms.

In addition to illustrating the personal impact of those medical procedures, the documentary features Kernel founder Bryan Johnson’s quest to create a non-invasive brain interface and includes footage of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg discussing their own plans to “hack” the human brain.

The goal of the film is to start a conversation, say its creators, who spoke with Hacking Finance about the implications of this revolution now playing out in operating rooms and research labs, and in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Hacking Finance: Your film questions whether advances in neuroscience will change what it “fundamentally means to be human.” Before making this film, what were your personal feelings about this?

Taryn Southern: I’ve always considered the brain to be this highly sophisticated machine governed by algorithms we just aren’t yet familiar with. Our machines, similarly, are now becoming so sophisticated because of AI/machine learning. Biology’s imperative is to survive; a machine’s imperative is to compute. I suppose the only difference, for now, is we control the machines. Perhaps that will not be the case in the future.

HF: Can you talk about Anne’s initial misgivings, as she was deciding whether or not to try the deep brain stimulation (DBS) procedure?

Elena Gaby: Anne loves nature, she’s always in her garden, she’s an artist—finding beauty in the natural world and valuing that. She felt the same about her body: the thought of an object coming in and being surgically installed was very foreign. Whenever you introduce something into the brain, whether it’s electrical, chemical—medication or caffeine— think of how much that alters you.

Anne’s Parkinson’s symptoms were terrible, but she couldn’t imagine the idea of awake brain surgery. Over time she analyzed some of her own reasons for feeling skeptical. The reason why Anne is such an inspiration to me personally is because she didn’t stop at her fear. Understanding what DBS and other treatments are doing, you realize that in some ways it’s not as scary [as some medication]. With a brain stimulator, at the level of precision we’re talking about. you really can target the exact problem area.

HF: All three of the film’s subjects have lost some basic “human” function as a result of illness. The other conversation happening in the film, with some of the entrepreneurs and researchers, is about augmenting intelligence and capabilities. There is Mark Zuckerberg standing up and saying you’re going to have Facebook in your brain, and that is so wonderful. Where is the line, do you think?  

EG: The work of the neuroscientists that we spoke to—often times, their life’s work—is focused on helping to restore function to people who have lost it in some way. Full stop. But that doesn’t mean they’re not aware of—or concerned about—the potential of their technology.

TS: When we speak about someone losing or gaining function, the outcomes aren’t binary. If you are diagnosed with dementia, perhaps you experience a 10 percent memory loss. Then 30 percent. Then 60 percent. Now let’s assume you have a new brain technology that can fix that. Certainly “fixing it” will also operate on a sliding scale. Theoretically, it’s possible that technology could now improve someone’s memory. Is that enhancing or just optimizing their former function? Is it even possible to know? We felt it was important to explore how technology like DBS could lead to augmentation down the line. These are tricky questions, but also inherently fun conversation starters.

HF: Can you talk about the motivations of entrepreneurs like Bryan Johnson, who is featured in the film?

EG: Bryan comes to the space from a unique point of view, [having] struggled with depression in his life for so long. The reason why a non-invasive brain interface is important is that there are tons of people who have Anne’s skepticism and fear. By eliminating brain surgery risk and cost and limiting factors…noninvasive technology has great potential to become an equalizer of access. You could imagine the technology becoming ubiquitous in society, like the smartphone.

TS: When you move that academic research into the private sector…it moves much faster.  In terms of what is at stake, I think a lot. As Johnson states in the film, it’s incredibly important that we trust whomever is behind this technology.

HF: What did the experts say about the repercussions of this experimentation that scared you most?

EG: There is the question of design—whether the technology regulating your brain is designed where you have control, or whether it has its own feedback loop. Can it decide when it is and is not on? This doesn’t exist, but let’s say you have a deep brain stimulator that knows to suppress depressed thoughts. What if you’re at a funeral, and your device isn’t going to let you feel the sadness that would be appropriate to be felt at that time? It’s a design flaw that seems small, but it’s actually everything.

TS: I don’t get frightened too easily, but I think the unintended consequences are probably the most terrifying. It’s not brain interfaces that frighten me—it’s the systems built out the interfaces. If our incentive models remain capitalism above basic human rights, then I think we could see a rather dreary future.

HF: So how, in your mind, do we build consensus about the best way forward?

EG:  We talk about freedom of speech, but if speech becomes obsolete, where is the legal groundwork to protect us? Nita Farahany [featured in the film] is an Iranian-American lawyer and educator. She is having these conversations in her classrooms that say maybe we need to talk about freedom of thought as a fundamental human right. And how important it is for freedom of thought to be recognized—whether it’s the United Nations or some kind of international body—as a fundamental human right.

TS:  We should be asking: What other societal structures need to be examined in order for this technology to have the greatest potential impact for good, and minimize the impact for bad? That’s a very big question, but it requires us to look more closely at the medical industry, the tech industry, government, and societal structures. I believe every one of these sectors (and neurotech) should also be employing ethicists to help explore and answer these questions.

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