Rethinking Collective Minds
We have long been aware that dominant notions of ‘autonomy’ and ‘individualism’ in ethics do not accurately map the ways in which human beings and animals interact socially and relationally across space and time. Rather simplistic distinctions between ‘collectivist’ and ‘individualist’ ethics; or, concepts like ‘relational’ consent and autonomy have been established to try to grasp the interactional and social dimensions of moral and ethical life. While such revised conceptions do important work, they are also limited in the sense that they seek to expand existing ideas rather than attempting to revise bioethical thinking. The development of technologies across diverse disciplines; e.g. psychology, neuroscience, bioengineering, and climate science are making progress in modelling collective minds and emergent collective behaviours, providing novel cases that push bioethics to new intellectual frontiers.
The inadequacy of traditional ways of thinking about relational, joint, and collective relations in bioethics is becoming increasingly clear and burdensome in light of new and emerging technologies for joint and collaborative decision-making, thinking and feeling. Research and Development (R&D) in neuroscience, experimental psychology, climate science, and bioengineering are all pushing the envelope of what ‘collectiveness’ entails, by modelling and designing tools for collective cognition. Some tools are ‘direct’ in nature, others are ‘indirect’: direct tools respond immediately to neuronal activity, and vice versa, for instance though transcranial magnetic stimulation for closed-loop interfaces; indirect tools, conversely, respond only by manual interaction by agents, for instance through smartphone applications or personal computer (PC) interfaces.
There are three classes of technological developments in these fields. First, and most prominently, there are Brain-Computer-Interfaces (BCIs). BCIs are characterised by computer-based systems recording and analysing brain signals and translating them into commands relayed to output devices to carry out desired actions. Second, there are Brain-Brain Interfaces (BBIs), which are characterized by combining neuroimaging and neurostimulation methods to record and deliver information between two or more brains, allowing direct brain-to-brain communication. Finally, there are Brain-Computer-Brain Interfaces (BCBIs), which constitute networks of brains and computers performing tasks jointly, where the computer component may serve as a computational, algorithmic, or translational ‘co-thinker’.
What all these constellations of minds, brains and computers have in common is that they challenge our understanding of who exactly is doing the thinking or acting, and by extension which moral and ethical frameworks apply. We aim to show how novel constellations of brains and computers require us to rethink our conceptions of collective entities, and the ethics which accompany them.
FSL - Laboratorio di Interfacce Cervello-Computer - 22, Fondazione Santa Lucia. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.