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Journal of Long-Term Effects of Medical Implants
Abstract of "Neural Engineering: The Ethical Challenges Ahead"
The Harvard Program in Ethics and Health, Harvard Medical School, 651 Huntington Avenue, FXB 6th Floor Boston, MA 02115
Ethics Institute, Dublin City University, Dublin 9 Irland
Most current research efforts in neural engineering focus on restoring health and functionality of the nervous system. In addition, there is considerable interest in developing neural engineering technologies for the purpose of enhancement. In the short run, the bulk of the neural engineering applications will likely continue to be focused on curing disease and reinstating lost functions. In the medium or long term, however, the focus of neural engineering might slowly but surely shift from therapy toward enhancement. Although neural engineering has a huge potential to relieve suffering, its further development is likely to trigger difficult ethical questions as well. In order to guarantee responsible development and appropriate use of neural engineering technologies, several ethical problems will have to be tackled. Immediately problematic are the risks that are potentially involved in connection with the required surgical interventions and with the tolerance of the body toward neuroimplants. Furthermore, several undesirable effects could surface in connection with neural engineering enhancement technologies in the long term. First, privacy, autonomy, and numerical identity could be violated. In addition, the application of enhancing neural engineering technologies would be in danger of promoting social injustice. Besides, widespread use of neural engineering for the purpose of enhancement could fan the flames of medicalization. Finally, intensive use of virtual environments might cause addiction, trigger negative personality changes, and blur the difference between artificial and real environments. Taken overall, these ethical problems appear substantial. Anticipative debate is needed to avoid these pitfalls and facilitate responsible further development and appropriate use of neural engineering technologies.
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