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The ethics of neurotechnologies

How do you feel about wearable neurotechnologies?

Wearable neurotechnologies are becoming more and more affordable for the general public. Examples include the Dreem 2 headband, the Muse 2/S and Philips Smartsleep. With the introduction of these consumer devices you don't need to be an expert any more to record neurological patterns. However, how do we deal with this from an ethical perspective? The data that are recorded are often stored on the servers of for-profit companies. As these devices get better, they could record more and more personal and sensitive data (potentially someones feelings and thoughts). The people that follow my YouTube channel are generally interested in new technologies and their potential for lifestyle improvements. I therefore asked them how they felt about the ethics of such technologies.


Questionnaire

I created a short questionnaire based on a paper by MacDuffie et al. , where they posed similar questions to industry experts and the general public. Specifically, they were interested in 7 ethical topic areas, which they describe as:

"(1) privacy of personally sensitive user data (i.e., what someone is thinking, feeling or doing);

(2) responsibility for unexpected harms caused by malfunctioning neural devices (to the user or others);

(3) access that is equitable to devices that may be expensive to maintain or operate;

(4) stigma caused by neural devices that are publicly visible and thus may reveal illness that would other-wise be hidden;

(5) user-control over the settings of the device (i.e., to increase/decrease the level of stimulation);

(6) family impact of devices that may alter family dynamics and caregiving needs;

(7) enhancement via neural devices that are used to improve capabilities beyond “normal.”"


Results

So, what did the questionnaire show us? First, we evaluated if the 7 topics mentioned above were important to people. The results are displayed below.

On the vertical axis is the proportion of people that feels each topic is important to them. Each topic is split into 4 columns: (light blue) people that use neurotech, (darker blue) people that actively use non-neurotech technology to track things in their lives, (red) industry professionals that work with neurotech, (green) the general public. The results for the red and green bar were taken from MacDuffie et al. .

What struck us that is that the topics "Control" and "Enhancement" were seen as more important by the people involved in self-tracking, and especially those using neurotech. Thinking about it, this makes sense, as these people are likely trying to use technology to optimise/improve their lives.


People were also asked to rank the topics in order of importance. Limiting ourselves to people that use any form of technology for self-tracking, we get the following graph:


The higher the bar, the higher the rank. Or, in other words, the higher the bar, the more important the topic to people. As you can see, the topics of "Control" and "Enhancement" are the third and fourth most important. Especially "Enhancement" is thereby ranked much higher than in MacDuffie et al. .


Conclusions

So, what can we conclude from this? Well, the most important conclusion for me is that the people that follow my YouTube channel represent a very interesting subgroup of the general public that are interested in using technology to improve their lives.

I am still thinking about the other conclusions we can draw based on this data, and I will update this blog when I have further ordered my thoughts.


Limitations

There are a number of limitations to the data presented here. The most important being that I did not do any statistical tests on the data, which means I cannot say if any of the results are statistically significant. Furthermore, I did not correct the results for things like gender and age.


Details

Want to see the more detailed results?

  • Here is a PDF with the overview statistics:

EthicsOverview
.pdf
Download PDF • 1.33MB

Want access to the raw data for a scientific paper? Please contact me via my contact form.

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