By Noah Smith, RightsViews staff writer and a graduate student in the human rights MA program.


On January 29, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights hosted Rafael Yuste, Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, to discuss the proposal from the Morningside group led by Yuste (Yuste et al., Nature 2017) to add new human rights articles to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to protect mental privacy, personal identity, personal agency, equal access to cognitive augmentation, and protection from algorithmic biases.

The event commenced with moderator Lara J. Nettelfield, Senior Lecturer, Institute for the Study of Human Rights, introducing Rafael Yuste who began his presentation by discussing the fundamental biology of the brain as well as why we must study neuroscience in relation to human rights. The brain, which is composed of roughly 100 billion neurons, is what generates all of our cognitive and mental abilities. If we understood how this organ worked, we would recognize the mind scientifically from the inside for the first time. Such a discovery would be a fundamental step in the evolution of our species, for the first time we would be able to conceptualize the workings of our own mind as a species that largely defines itself by our cognitive abilities.  

Professor Yuste also spoke of the immense clinical implications a comprehensive understanding of the brain may yield. Innumerous neurological disorders, for which we have no present cure, may be elucidated and treated. Additionally, Yuste spoke of the economic and technological implications. He stated that a typical human has 100 billion neurons which is about three times the number of nodes of the entire internet on earth, essentially, we have the equivalent of three internets in our heads. Nature is using ways of computing that are more powerful than we compute today with digital computers, if we understood how the brain worked, we could extract these algorithms and revolutionize our technology.

Yuste stated that we can solve the enigma of our consciousness by developing methods that allow us to look at all of our neurons at once and record their activity. Extracting these methods was at the heart of former President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, which sought to read the activity of every neuron, change the activity of every neuron at will, as well as develop the neurotechnology necessary to describe what is transpiring in the brain both scientifically and clinically. Neurotechnology can be defined as technology that would record the activity of brain tissue as well as change that activity, essentially the ability to write activity into the tissue.

Nations and companies alike emulated Obama’s BRAIN Initiative and are now in the race to build neurotechnology and AI, particularly for the economic reasons addressed. While it is evident neurotechnology has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the brain it also has the potential to adversely impact human rights such as rights to privacy, freedom of thought, the right to mental integrity, freedom from discrimination, or the principle against self-incrimination, yet international human rights law does not presently make any explicit references to neurotechnology or AI.

There are no unifying codes of ethics governing the neurotechnology field. These technologies open the way for human augmentation and investment from the private sector, primarily the tech industry, into neurotechnologies is higher than that of the government. In an essay in Nature, Yuste and a team of scientists articulate the potential dangers of this technology if not regulated, stating that neurotechnology may “exacerbate social inequalities and offer corporations, hackers, governments or anyone else new ways to exploit and manipulate people.” Motivated by all of these potential problems, a group of concerned scientists from around the world met at Columbia University in 2017 to draft four ethical priorities for neurotechnology and AI to make society aware that this technology needs ethical guidelines. Yuste stated that “we have a responsibility as scientists that create this technology to alert society of the negative impacts that it could have to make sure we have guardrails in place for the benefit of humanity.” They decided that this new technology and its real-world implications are a human rights issue because the brain represents the essence of the embodied self. The neurorights Yuste has proposed integrating into the UDHR coalesce well within its extant framework. Specifically, Article 22 of the UDHR states that  “everyone is entitled to the realization of the rights needed for one’s dignity and the free development of their personality,” and Article 12 articulates that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” It is evident that unregulated neurotechnology and AI threaten existing human rights enshrined within the UDHR and enforceable guidelines for this technology and those who control it must be enacted. 

The Morningside group led by Yuste, in addition to their human rights advocacy, created the NeuroRights Initiative at Columbia University. NeuroRights is a pro bono advocacy start-up to promote a diffusion of neurorights and neuroprotection. Their mission is to prevent the abuse of the developing knowledge through advocating for human rights-based regulations of the technology. The NeuroRights Initiative, in collaboration with its partners, is drafting an ethical framework for entrepreneurs, physicians, and researchers developing Neurotechnology and AI called the Technocratic Oath, similar to the Hippocratic Oath, to treat people with dignity and benefice. The enforceability or punitive consequences for not adhering to the Technocratic Oath have yet to be articulated. 

Presently, no country in the world has any guidelines for neurotechnology, however, due to Yuste’s advocacy that may change this year. The Chilean government is considering adopting a constitutional amendment to Article 19 of the Chilean Constitution which would define mental integrity as a basic human right. Additionally, the Chilean government is looking into passing a bill of law, called the NeuroRights Law, which would apply the medical model to neurotechnology. Each of these bills has passed through the Senate and is awaiting approval from the house.

Professor Yuste concluded his lecture by stating that he believes we are on the brink of a modern renaissance. Neurotechnology and an understanding of the brain will fundamentally change our world, culture, and history.  However, a resounding sentiment which echoed throughout Yuste’s lecture, is that while these technologies have the potential to harken to a modern scientific revolution, our technological industries, and scientific advancements mustn’t develop faster than the human rights standards and considerations needed to govern them to assure no one is exploited in the name of progress.

NeuroRights Initiative Newsletter 


Photo Credits

“Seminario Rafael Yuste Neurologo Español Propulsor Inicictiva Brain” by Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

“BR41N.IO Hackathon The Brain-Computer Interface Designers Hackathon / g.tec neurotechnology GmbH (AT)” by Ars Electronica is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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