Convergence in neuroscience and technology: Fine tuning a big(ger) vision, and the need for neuroethics

In a recent piece in the journal Science and in a longer paper posted on the MIT website, Phillip A. Sharp and Robert Langer have spoken to the need for, and trend toward convergence in biomedical science. As these prominent researchers note, convergence “emerges” as the foci and activities of several disciplines fuse so that the sum of their research and outcomes is greater than its constituent parts. Such convergence is occurring among the disciplines that create, employ, and constitute the “field” of neurotechnology – and so we witness a merging of physics, chemistry, nanoscience, cyberscience and engineering, and the engagement of genetics, anatomy, pharmacology, physiology and cognitive psychology, in ways that biologist E.O Wilson might describe as “consilient.”


To be sure, this fosters and necessitates the “multilingual” “convergence creole” capabilities of terminology, discourse and knowledge and resource inter-digitations that Sharp and Langer describe. I agree – a common language and working construct of convergence is vital if we realistically operationalize de-siloing of the disciplines that could develop and employ neurotechnological to maximize opportunities to define and solve novel problems in basic and translational biomedicine, and more broadly in the public sphere. That’s because this process is not merely a technical sharing, but instead represents a synthetic mind-set that explicitly seeks to foster innovative use of knowledge-, skill-, and tool-sets toward (1) elucidating the nature and potential mechanisms of scientific questions and problems, (2) de-limiting existing approaches to question/problem resolution; and (3) developing novel means of addressing and solving such issues.


I posit that in this way, convergence enables concomitant “tools-to-theory” and “theory-to-tools” heuristics, and the translation of both heuristics and tools to practice. This is important because the current utility of many neurotechnologies is constrained by factors including (1) a lack of specificity of action and effect (e.g. transcranial and/or direct magnetic stimulation), (2) size restrictions and cumbersome configurations of micro- and macroscale devices, and (3) difficulties of matching certain types of neurologic data (e.g. from neuroimaging, neurogenetic studies) to databases that are large enough to enable statistically relevant, and meaningful comparative and/or normative inferences. So the fusion of neuro-nano-geno-cyber science and technologies can be seen as an enabling paradigm for de-limiting current uses and utility, and fostering new directions and opportunities for use and applicability.


Once silos are dissolved, limitations can be diminished or removed, but so too may be the ability to recognize relative limits upon the pace and extent of scientific discovery, and the use of its knowledge and products. As I’ve previously mentioned in this blog and elsewhere, the result may be that we then encounter effects, burdens, and harms that were as yet unknown, and/or unforeseen. There is real risk that the pace, breadth and depth of neuroscientific and technological capability may outstrip that of the ethical deliberations that could most genuinely evaluate its social impact, and in response, appropriately direct such innovation and steer its use.


What is needed is a systematic method of and forum for inquiry about what the convergence approach in neuroS&T (neuroscience and technology) will and might yield, and how its outcomes and products may change the values and conduct of science and society. Appropriate questions for such inquiry would include: (1) how convergence approaches can be employed in neuroscience; (2) what practical and ethical issues, concerns, and problems might arise as a consequence, and (3) what systems of risk analysis and mitigation might be required to meet these challenges, and guide the employment of neuroS&T. Given the power of convergent science to affect the speed and scope of neuroscientific discovery and neurotechnological innovation, I argue that such an approach to the ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) is needed now, and not after-the-fact.


But any meaningful approach to the ELSI of convergent neuroS&T would require an equally advanced, integrative system of ethics that can effectively analyze and balance positive and negative trajectories of progress, increase viable benefits, and militate against harm(s). Obviously, this would necessitate evaluation of both the ethical issues germane to the constituent convergent disciplines, and those generated by the convergence model of neuroS&T itself.  I believe that neuroethics can serve this role and meet this demand (although opinions on this certainly differ; see for example: “against neuroethics“) As a discipline, neuroethics can be seen as having two major “traditions” – the first being the study of neurological mechanisms involved in moral cognition and actions (what might be better termed, “neuro-morality”), and the second that examines, addresses and seeks to guide ethical issues fostered by neuroS&T research and use (see: “Neuroethics for the New Millennium“).


I’ve posed that these two “traditions” are not mutually exclusive, and that if and when taken together, may afford a meta-ethics that both informs how and why we develop and act morally, and uses this information to intuit ways to employ existing systems of ethics, and/or cultivate new ethical approaches to better reflect and decide upon the moral implications and ramifications of various uses and misuses of neuroS&T in the social sphere. Philosopher Neil Levy has claimed that neuroethics might be a new way of doing ethics, and this might be so. At very least, I think that neuroethics will allow a more explicit and purposive focus upon how change, uncertainty and progress in neuroS&T are affected by – and affect – progress, not only in genetics, nanoscience and cyberscience as stand-alone entities or simple concatenations of scientific methods, tools and techniques, but as a true convergence that conflates ideas, process and technologies, and in the event, change the human predicament, human condition, and the human being.


There are a number of excellent discussions about what neuroethics is and is not, and can and cannot do (see for example, Eric Racine’s fine book Pragmatic Neuroethics). My take on this is that in order to have any real value, neuroethics (as a discipline and practice) must (1) apprehend the changing realities of neuroS&T capability and effect(s); (2) identify which extant moral theories and systems may and/or may not be viable in ethical analyses and guidance; and (3) develop ethical tools that compensate for weaknesses in current ethical theories in order to more effectively weigh benefits and risks, and remain prepared for possible “less than best case” scenarios.


A simple precautionary principle won’t work, for the simple reason being that neuroS&T pushes the boundaries at the frontier of the known and unknown, and (1) conditions “at the edge” are always risky; (2) while apparent benefits may compel each new step forward, burdens, risks and harms can be less than obvious because they often are consequential to our beneficent intentions (for those of you who are Sci-Fi fans, there are host of writings and movies that play to this, think for example of the films Mimic, Surrogates, and Limitless, just to name a few), and (3) the longer S/T remains in the public sphere, the greater the likelihood for it being influenced by economic, and/or socio-political agendas.


In other words, stuff happens, and we need to be aware that it can, likely will, and be prepared if and when it does. Not by trying to grind neuroS&T to a halt or by imposing unrealistic proscriptions, but by supporting a convergent approach to both neuroS&T and the ethical systems that guide its use in an ever-more pluralist society, and changing world stage.