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Shaping the ethical direction of the HBP for the public interest

Better understanding the human brain offers insights into what it means to be human, the causes of brain-related diseases – alongside improved diagnosis and treatment – while holding out the prospect of advances in artificial intelligence technologies. But at what ethical cost?

Scientific advances

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Sensitive to the ethical questions emanating from the research methodologies, results and potential applications at the interface of neuroscience and technology, the HBP (Human Brain Project) incorporated a programme of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).

By engaging with external stakeholders, including citizens, the RRI programme studies specific research consequences, while continuing to address traditional ethical concerns surrounding issues such as animal or human experimentation. The work contributes to the governance of the HBP as a whole, for example by developing standard operating procedures. It also ensures ethical issues can be identified, raised and responded to, through formal and informal channels, including an independent Ethics Advisory Board (EAB).

Ethics without borders

Ethics touch almost all aspects of most research projects, but the scale and ambition of the HBP make ethical implications more pronounced. Taking data governance, and questions about which data can be used for what purpose and by whom, generates a range of legal as well as ethical concerns. With the HBP, exchanging data across national borders adds a further layer of complexity.

In response, the HBP Ethics and Society research programme led by Prof. Kathinka Evers has established a working group which collates all data-related policies and regulations. “This is a large and multi-faceted problem that all large data-intensive projects share. Our work in this field is seminal, with potential to shape how future international collaborations work,” says HBP’s Ethics Director Prof Bernd Stahl.

Another crucial area of work relates to policy and regulatory compliance. In some cases, pre-existing EU regulations make the rules clear. “With biomedical research for example, EU rules about animal protection, along with means of enforcement, are well established,” says Prof Stahl. “In other less defined areas of research, the EU has a clear role to lead a broader social debate.”

One such area is that of artificial intelligence (AI). While the HBP’s neuromorphic research may hold the key to developing stronger AI, the roll out of ever-increasing AI capabilities could prove socially problematic. Within the field of employment alone it has the potential to create unemployment in some sectors, while also increasing workplace discrimination and bias.

The ethics and society programme contributes to these social debates with its own public engagement activities, led by The Danish Board of Technology. The programme also conducts empirical investigations through interviews, surveys and public engagement exercises.

The practical and the profound

The HBP research will benefit science, ICT and medicine in innumerable ways, with important implications for citizens. Novel neuroscience-inspired technologies, such as neuromorphic computing and neurorobotics could fundamentally alter the physical and cognitive capabilities of humans.

Perhaps the biggest, but most challenging, impact will come with the development of better ways of understanding, diagnosing and treating brain-related diseases. On a more philosophical level, better brain understanding may affect the way we think about ourselves, exerting a profound influence on social structures and relations.

Forewarning that those implications are likely to be both negative and positive, means that the right questions can be asked, in time, by the right people.

However, as Prof Stahl says, “in most cases there is not one single, simple answer to ethical questions and there is no final ethical arbiter. We encourage open, inclusive and transparent communication to reach consensus about how to best move forward.”

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