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Direct brain control of weapons prompts ethical debate

Mission critical
Thu Mar 01 2012, 13:07

BRINGING A WHOLE NEW TWIST to the phrase 'blue screen of death', scientists are calling for a public debate on the ethics of using direct brain control technology to manage systems including weaponry.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has launched a public consultation on the ethics of using technologies such as brain computer interfaces (BCIs) in non-medical situations. The organisation defines a BCI as a system for measuring and analysing brain signals and translating them into outputs such as computer-based communication or control of a device.

Possible medical uses that have been identified include restoring communications for patients with 'locked-in syndrome' and developing a BCI-controlled wheelchair for people who are paralysed.

However the technology clearly lends itself to less benign applications, and this is why the Nuffield Council on Bioethics is calling for discussions about non-medical uses of BCIs including computer games and military applications.

Outside of the health context, these new technologies could also be used in various military applications, the ethics body warned, citing the example of weapons or vehicles controlled remotely by brain signals.

"The development of these technologies for use in warfare may be more troubling for some. For example if brain-computer interfaces are used to control military aircraft or weapons from far away, who takes ultimate responsibility for the actions? Could this be blurring the line between man and machine?" said Thomas Baldwin, chair of the council's study and professor of philosophy at the University of York.

"Hopes of curing terrible diseases, and fears about the consequences of trying to enhance human capability beyond what is normally possible. These challenge us to think carefully about fundamental questions to do with the brain: what makes us human, what makes us an individual, and how and why do we think and behave in the way we do."

The Nuffield Council consultation runs until 23 April and the orgnaisation would like to hear the views of a wide range of people, including those who have used or are hoping to use these technologies, those involved in development or supply, researchers, academics, patients, medical professionals, regulators, policy makers and others. µ


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