Opinion: Chile at the Forefront of Neurorights Protection

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In the midst of a global pandemic that has led many of us to rethink the kind of future we are building, Chile has taken a new step that places it at the forefront of global debates on the impact of new technologies. Last October, its Senate presented a bill to protect the human brain against the risks of neurotechnologies. Thus, Chile has become the first country to promote the idea of neurorights as human rights that should be protected by the fundamental laws.

The basic idea behind the initiative is to protect human beings from the intrusion of third parties into our brains. Specifically, the proposed constitutional reform consists of a single article that states: “Physical and psychological integrity allows people to fully enjoy their individual identity, and their freedom. No authority or individual may, by means of any technological mechanism, increase, decrease, or disturb such individual integrity without due consent. Only the law can establish the requirements to limit this right, and the requirements that consent must meet in these cases.”

In addition to this proposal, there is a second bill that seeks to protect the physical and psychological integrity of people through the protection of privacy, neural data, the right to autonomy or freedom of individual decision, and access without arbitrary discrimination to those neurotechnologies that enhance cognitive capabilities.

The driving force behind this initiative was largely the Spanish neuroscientist Rafael Yuste, Co-Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University and named in 2012 by Nature magazine as one of the world’s most influential scientists. Yuste, who is also one of the initiators of BRAIN, a project launched in 2013 by the Obama administration to understand how the brain works, believes that it is already too late to remedy the negative consequences of social media, but that we still have time to protect the human brain from the intrusion of new technologies.

This is a challenging idea in a context where we have not yet agreed on how to regulate the impact of social media on the mental health of many teenagers, nor their potential corrosive effects on democratic institutions and on the geopolitical competition between the major global powers. Yet, the current technological revolution raises important ethical dilemmas that should not be underestimated if these developments are to help build a better future.

We cannot deny that the proposal of Neuralink, the latest project of Elon Musk, has a certain appeal. According to their website, they “are creating the future of brain interfaces: building devices now that will help people with paralysis and inventing new technologies that will expand our abilities, our community, and our world.” But beyond the dubious scientific reliability of the project, one immediately wonders, who is going to regulate the possible side effects of these brain interfaces and the neural data to which Elon Musk is going to have access? Furthermore, who will be able to benefit from these technological developments? And just like Neuralink, there are many other companies investing a lot of money in finding a way to connect a computer to the human brain.

The good news seems to be that we still have time to address these concerns. This is exactly what the Chilean Congress is trying to do, protecting mental privacy and our ability to think for and feel like ourselves, ensuring equal access to new technologies and guaranteeing the responsible development of neurotechnologies.

The initiative has been presented almost at the same time that Chilean society chose by an overwhelming majority to reform its Constitution, inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship. What started with students protesting against the increase of the subway ticket, led one year later to a referendum in which Chileans turned out en masse to vote for a new Constitution.

Are these both purely coincidental? Probably not. The constitutional process that is beginning in Chile aims to heal a deeply unequal society and provide a new fundamental law that adequately protects their rights. And in the 21st century, safeguarding human rights also means protecting ourselves from the risks of the new technologies we have developed. Chile is doing what other developing countries should be doing: undertaking the needed reforms to tackle the structural problems inherited from the past, while at the same time addressing the challenges of the 21st century.

If approved, the proposal could serve as an incentive for other countries and international organizations to implement similar standards and regulations. Miguel Angel Moratinos, High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, stated that the initiative should not just be applauded and supported, but also serve as a model for others countries and for the broader objective of “incorporating these neurorights into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Moratinos’ words raise another crucial point: at what level should these issues be regulated? Since the actors involved are not limited to certain borders, but transcend and even challenge them, is it enough to introduce national legislation? Sovereign nation states continue to be the ultimate source of power in the legal organization of societies. In this sense, initiatives such as Chile’s are not only important, but fundamental and auspicious. However, since these neurotechnologies will have an impact on humanity as a whole, it is imperative that we also engage in an in-depth conversation about them at the transnational level. Because, as Yuval Noah Harari pointed out, whoever controls the data will control the future.