Brain-machine Interfaces Opening Up a Host of Ethical Dilemmas

To tackle the issue of accountability when the first injury to result from human-robot symbiosis arises, researchers imagine a system that would require the user to approve or veto any unwanted actions on the part of the machine they are interfacing with.

Image: Tim Sheerman-Chase/Flickr

Existing brain-machine interface (BMI) technology is impressive, but still in its infancy. According to a new paper published in Science by an international team of researchers, it’s not too early to start addressing the host of ethical issues that are raised when people control computers with their minds.

In the first place, there is the problem of responsibility. Although the authors acknowledge that BMIs might be seen as just another tool, unlike a hammer, these tools have a number of autonomous components within them. If you smash a window with a hammer, it’s clear that the fault lies with on the person who wielded it. But if you think about smashing a window with a hammer while wired into a BMI, without any intention of actually smashing the window, and this triggers your autonomous robot to go break the nearest window with its onboard hammer, well—it’s much less clear who is at fault.

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