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From bionics to brain chips, hacking humanity has never been more ethically fraught

Renowned scientists Moran Cerf and Riccardo Sabatini discuss the intersection of technology and the human body.

From bionics to brain chips, hacking humanity has never been more ethically fraught
Moran Cerf, neuroscientist and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management and the neuroscience program at Northwestern University (left), and Ricardo Sabatini, scientist and entrepreneur, speaking at the Fast Company European Innovation Festival

At the Fast Company European Innovation Festival today, scientists Moran Cerf and Riccardo Sabatini had a wide-ranging discussion on the implications of technology that can hack humanity. From ethical questions to looking toward human biology for solutions, here are some of the highlights:

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The ethics of ‘neural inequality’

There are already chips that can be implanted in the brain to help recover bodily functions after a stroke or brain injury. However, what happens if (more likely when) a chip in your brain can be hacked or even gain internet access, essentially making it possible for some people (more likely wealthy people) to process information much more quickly than others?

Moran Cerf [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
“It’s what some call neural inequality,” says Cerf, a neuroscientist and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management and at the neuroscience program at Northwestern University. “If this person only lives in Silicon Valley, and no one else in, say, Alaska has the same chip because it’s expensive to get it, you start to create inequality where some people are able to think better, faster, and some are not. And we know how to deal with inequality in money, even though we don’t do a good job with that. We don’t know how to deal with inequality in thinking.”

Opening new pathways to thought through bionics

Cerf mentioned a colleague who was born without his left hand. He engineered a bionic one that he can control with an app and that has the functionality of doing things no human hand can do, like rotating 360 degrees. As fun of a party trick as that is, Cerf brings up a good point in that his colleague’s brain is processing something we can’t, thereby possibly opening new pathways of thought.

“The interesting thing, and this is up to us to investigate, is his brain can think thoughts that you cannot think because he has a function you don’t have,” Cerf says. “As we enhance the body and as we start playing with extension, we would also increase the amount of thoughts. So creativity could be a new thought that you could create in your brain that others cannot create because they don’t have the right functions.”

The innovation of your human body

As people look to advanced bionics to amplify their senses or abilities, Sabatini, chief data scientist at Orionis Biosciences, makes the argument that our biological bodies are far more advanced than we give them credit for.

Fast Company editor-in-chief Stephanie Mehta (left), Moran Cerf (center), neuroscientist and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management and the neuroscience program at Northwestern University (center), and Ricardo Sabatini (right), scientist and entrepreneur, at the Fast Company European Innovation Festival [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
“The immune system is one of the most advanced and evolved weapons that we know today,” he says. “What we’ve understood in the last decade is the most incredible power is already embedded in the natural assembly of biology. The most incredible, sophisticated sci-fi-sounding things that you would hope to have are most probably already running in your body.”

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Democratizing tech’s edges

Early innovation so often comes with a high price tag. The cost of experimenting with nascent technology or running clinical trials can be exorbitant. And Sabatini believes democratizing that part of the process is where the true innovation will be.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
“That’s a big ethical challenge around the world: how to make breakthrough medical technologies accessible to the entire world,” he says. “It’s not just enough to have disruptive technology or finding a breakthrough in your lab. You need to deliver it to the world. That’s how you change the world. It’s not in a lab. The seed is there, but we need entrepreneurs to take it, industrialize it, and make it accessible.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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