December 19, 2022The Intersectioninformation agetechnology policy

Technological power must be deconcentrated

A few powerful individuals, a few large corporations or a few big countries should not be allowed to have unchecked influence over the future of humanity.

Mint This is an unedited draft of my The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

You don’t have to be a Luddite to have serious misgivings about brain implants. There certainly are beneficial uses, but once brain-computer interfaces become commercially available, we can neither predict nor control what they will end up being used for. There is a risk that we can rapidly and thoughtlessly end up changing what it means to be human. With only an indirect interface to the human brain, social media networks have profoundly transformed human society. We are still discovering how pervasive information networks influence human cognition, but we already know enough to be concerned about the impact on rational thinking and collective opinion formation.

So there is good reason to be extremely cautious and deliberate about the adoption of brain implant technology. But when you realise that people like Elon Musk now control the direction of its development, and the regulatory mechanism of a deeply polarised United States the only gatekeeper, you need to be more than concerned. Musk’s whimsical, erratic and mercurial decisions at Twitter should cause regulators and policymakers to be wary of allowing Neuralink, a brain implant technology company that he owns, to further develop the technology, leave alone bring it to market. Yet US regulators can merely assess the technical and ethical aspects of Neuralink’s technology — there neither have the mandate nor the capability to assess the risks of putting such critical technology in the hands of a person like Elon Musk.

The company is currently reportedly facing an investigation over alleged unethical practices concerning animal experiments. If there is any truth to these charges, then a lot more is at stake than the abuse and killing of animals. Lack of scruples is often fungible, and a corporate culture that is unethical with respect to animals might not be very committed to being ethical with humans either. I am not singling out one company: but rather, underlining the social risks attached to the brain implant business.

Now, there is certainly a reasonable case to use brain implants strictly for medical therapeutic uses, like there is for cardiac pacemakers, hearing aids and prosthesis. The problem is that the line dividing the therapeutic from the cosmetic, instrumental, recreational and enhancement is fuzzy. They are also hackable. Commercial incentives will push brain implant technology to move towards the more lucrative non-therapeutic ends of the spectrum.Once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be impossible to put it back in.

Despite Musk’s headline-grabbing timelines, brain implant technology itself is several years away. But even several years are too fast for a world with a dysfunctional order, polarised politics and exhausted regulatory bodies trying to catch up with the pace of technology. There are few global mechanisms for technology policy coordination, and the conflict between US and China creates incentives for one-upmanship than for cooperation. Polarised politics turns many policy issues into ideological ones, making pragmatic approaches much harder to find. The world’s regulators are called upon to take policy positions on entirely new types of issues and employ existing instruments like anti-trust and consumer protection laws that were designed for the Industrial Age.

Many technologies like brain implants, gene editing, artificial intelligence tools that can generate deepfakes or spacecraft that mine celestial bodies affect all of humanity, but given the particular circumstances of history, are influenced by American entrepreneurs and governed by US law. It is possible to argue that it was always this way: but the difference is that the world was not always this way. The interconnectedness makes a difference. The apps I can use and the features those apps have are controlled by the management of a few big corporations in the United States and they, in turn, are bound by US law. I have no say in this, even notionally, except to choose not to use the technology. That’s not easy, because you need those apps to carry out the most basic functions of daily life.

Although national regulators and lawmakers have stepped in, they are mostly reacting to developments. This means their response will be reflexive and hew to their political and regulatory cultures. So governments will demand greater control through localisation or surveillance requirements or, at the other extreme, just ban the technologies that they cannot adequately control.

There are many more The Intersection columns here

From ChatGPT to cyberwarfare, from brain implants to space exploration, we need a collective approach to technology governance. A few powerful individuals, a few large corporations or a few big countries should not be allowed to have unchecked influence over the future of humanity. At the dawn of the Industrial Age, farsighted leaders drew up constitutions to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single person and to force democratic accountability in the way affairs of a community are managed. We need thinking of a similar order for the Information Age. Hopefully, without the aid of brain implants.

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