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HYBRID MINDS: EXPERIENTIAL, ETHICAL AND LEGAL INVESTIGATION OF INTELLIGENT NEUROPROSTHESES

In November 2020, Professor Jennifer A Chandler and her colleagues were awarded a major 3-year grant in the European Research Area Networks (ERA-NET) program for their project entitled Hybrid Minds:  Experiential, ethical and legal investigation of intelligent neuroprostheses.

The grant, worth a total of 815,000 euros (CAD$1.26 million), is funded by the Canadian, German and Swiss national funders, and will support research by Professor Chandler as consortium coordinator and her colleagues, Prof. Dr. Surjo Soekadar (Charité – University Medicine Berlin, Germany), Dr. Marcello Ienca (ETH Zurich – Department of Health, Sciences and Technology, Switzerland) and Dr. Jan Christoph Bublitz (Faculty of Law, University of Hamburg, Germany).  The group will benefit from a multidisciplinary and multi-national team of collaborators and advisors representing neurosurgery, neuroengineering, rehabilitation engineering,  philosophical phenomenology, neuroethics,  engineering ethics, and neurological patient policy and advocacy.  Professor Chandler’s colleagues in the University of Ottawa’s Brain Mind Research Institute, including Dr. Adam Sachs (Director of Neuromodulation and Functional Neurosurgery at the Ottawa Hospital), are key collaborators in this research project.  

The project will address intelligent neuroprostheses, which represent the next phase in the evolution of devices integrated with the nervous system to assist, replace or alter human sensory, motor, cognitive, and affective functions. These devices include “read out” or output systems that detect, interpret and translate neural signals for various applications such as to move a robotic arm or cursor.  They also include “write in” or input systems that deliver signals or stimulation to the brain to alter thinking, emotions, and the ability to move.  The technology increasingly incorporates Artificial Intelligence (AI) to create devices characterized by mutual adaptation, in which both user and self-learning algorithm change over time to optimize system output.  The integration of AI with human brains and minds into hybrid minds is a departure in terms of its complexity, unpredictability, and psychological impact. Our project pursues a unified theoretical approach to the ethical-legal assessment of intelligent neuroprostheses, informed by the perspectives of users, the neuroengineering community and other key stakeholders, culminating in the questions: Which AI-elements should future neuroprostheses incorporate or leave out? What technical design choices or regulatory measures are required to proceed safely? How can we support patients in clinical decision-making to avoid overblown hopes and to know, to borrow Thomas Nagel’s famous phrase, “what it’s like to have a hybrid mind”?