Face to face with a machine: Brain-computer interfaces

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Professor Andrea Pizzichini of the Alfonsiana Academy intervenes in a discussion on the opportunities and challenges of modern information technology. We publish his article from the Academy’s blog.

A few weeks ago, Elon Musk’s announcement of the successful implantation of a chip in a human brain caused a sensation (here). What is controversial, however, is not so much the fact that we have managed to successfully interact with the human brain with a technological device, since brain-computer interfaces (BCI) is a now consolidated line of research for years and with important results (here). What is striking is the horizon of this work, which Musk does not hide: starting by resolving serious disabilities resulting from brain damage (e.g. paralysis or blindness), and then reaching the point of actively controlling one’s smartphone or computer with one’s mind (here and here). A real telepathy, in short, the new frontier of digital development.

Brain-computer interfaces

This certainly raises many questions in the ethical field, first of all on the lawfulness of some BCI applications. For example, one of the most debated problems in this field concerns the so-called enhancement process, i.e. the increase in brain functions beyond their “normal” threshold in a health context – therefore, not to recovering a deficit in functions that has occurred due to external causes. Is this type of intervention lawful? And if so, to what extent? Is the person thus “empowered” still the same person as before? Or does he become someone else?

As we can see, the question of the authenticity of the person is touched upon here, and this suggests to us that we can go even deeper in our questioning, reaching the heart of the anthropological question.

Can the soul be touched?

Neurotechnologies (but more generally neuroscience itself) have been showing for some time now that it is possible not only to observe but also to intervene in what has always been considered intangible, as well as invisible: consciousness and, therefore, the soul. That is, neurotechnologies show us how even consciousness and the soul have now entered the sphere of possibilities of technical creation.

Warning: this does not represent a sort of barbarization of science, a disinterested search for truth, which gives way to technology, knowledge-power governed by utilitarian and economic logic. This is not a degradation of science but its coherent development: modern science has never been a pure and simple contemplation of nature but has been configured from the beginning as an active knowledge that builds its own investigative experiences (the experiment). It is not strange, therefore, that technology can also be a path to knowledge: I understand how a phenomenon “works” if I know how to reproduce it or if I know how to reconstruct the processes that compose it. Ultimately, science and technology are just two poles of the same technoscience. But this is not necessarily a bad thing if we don’t forget that it is simply a type of approach to reality. One of many that perhaps can offer unexpected ideas and avenues of reflection.

In our case, neuroscience and neurotechnology demonstrate that the body-soul dichotomy – or res extensa-res cogitans to be more philosophically precise – is simply unsustainable, and that the question needs to be at least reformulated.

An Anthropology Beyond Dualism

Phenomenological thinking offers us the possibility. For example, if we analyze the experience of our corporeality (we have already had to change the term: body was no longer good), we can say first of all that we are body: the body is an integral part of our personal being, it is our way of presenting ourselves in reality; therefore, all things considered, it should not be surprising if, at least in part, the life that characterizes us (the soul, so to speak) can be accessible to technoscientific action and knowledge. At least in part: we must not forget that, in addition to being a body, we also experience that we have a body, and I believe that this is the experience at the basis of the various anthropological dualisms. The fact of having a body, as well as being one, is a sign that man (self) transcends his purely corporeal dimension, where one’s body is to be understood in the strict sense as that passivity which is properly the object of technoscience.

If these two poles are kept in mind –  being and having a body, corporeity, and self-transcendence – a serene dialogue with brain sciences and emerging technologies is possible, being able to grasp both their fruitfulness for human development and, at the same time, identify their limits, inevitable for every singular point of view on reality.

Prof. Andrea Pizzichini

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