A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Tag: neuroethics (Page 1 of 6)

An unusually big question

Sometimes the intellectual claims on science are so big that they risk obscuring the actual research. This seems to happen not least when the claims are associated with some great prestigious question, such as the origin of life or the nature of consciousness. By emphasizing the big question, one often wants to show that modern science is better suited than older human traditions to answer the riddles of life. Better than philosophy, for example.

I think of this when I read a short article about such a riddle: “What is consciousness? Scientists are beginning to unravel a mystery that has long vexed philosophers.” The article by Christof Koch gives the impression that it is only a matter of time before science determines not only where in the brain consciousness arises (one already seems have a suspect), but also the specific neural mechanisms that give rise to – everything you have ever experienced. At least if one is to believe one of the fundamental theories about the matter.

Reading about the discoveries behind the identification of where in the brain consciousness arises is as exciting as reading a whodunit. It is obvious that important research is being done here on the effects that loss or stimulation of different parts of the brain can have on people’s experiences, mental abilities and personalities. The description of a new technology and mathematical algorithm for determining whether patients are conscious or not is also exciting and indicates that research is making fascinating progress, which can have important uses in healthcare. But when mathematical symbolism is used to suggest a possible fundamental explanation for everything you have ever experienced, the article becomes as difficult to understand as the most obscure philosophical text from times gone by.

Since even representatives of science sometimes make philosophical claims, namely, when they want to answer prestigious riddles, it is perhaps wiser to be open to philosophy than to compete with it. Philosophy is not just about speculating about big questions. Philosophy is also about humbly clarifying the questions, which otherwise tend to grow beyond all reasonable limits. Such openness to philosophy flourishes in the Human Brain Project, where some of my philosophical colleagues at CRB collaborate with neuroscientists to conceptually clarify questions about consciousness and the brain.

Something I myself wondered about when reading the scientifically exciting but at the same time philosophically ambitious article, is the idea that consciousness is everything we experience: “It is the tune stuck in your head, the sweetness of chocolate mousse, the throbbing pain of a toothache, the fierce love for your child and the bitter knowledge that eventually all feelings will end.” What does it mean to take such an all-encompassing claim seriously? What is not consciousness? If everything we can experience is consciousness, from the taste of chocolate mousse to the sight of the stars in the sky and our human bodies with their various organs, where is the objective reality to which science wants to relate consciousness? Is it in consciousness?

If consciousness is our inevitable vantage point, if everything we experience as real is consciousness, it becomes unclear how we can treat consciousness as an objective phenomenon in the world along with the body and other objects. Of course, I am not talking here about actual scientific research about the brain and consciousness, but about the limitless intellectual claim that scientists sooner or later will discover the neural mechanisms that give rise to everything we can ever experience.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Christof Koch, What Is Consciousness? Scientists are beginning to unravel a mystery that has long vexed philosophers, Nature 557, S8-S12 (2018) https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05097-x

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We transgress disciplinary borders

Human rights and legal issues related to artificial intelligence

How do we take responsibility for a technology that is used almost everywhere? As we develop more and more uses of artificial intelligence (AI), the challenges grow to get an overview of how this technology can affect people and human rights.

Although AI legislation is already being developed in several areas, Rowena Rodrigues argues that we need a panoramic overview of the widespread challenges. What does the situation look like? Where can human rights be threatened? How are the threats handled? Where do we need to make greater efforts? In an article in the Journal of Responsible Technology, she suggests such an overview, which is then discussed on the basis of the concept of vulnerability.

The article identifies ten problem areas. One problem is that AI makes decisions based on algorithms where the decision process is not completely transparent. Why did I not get the job, the loan or the benefit? Hard to know when computer programs deliver the decisions as if they were oracles! Other problems concern security and liability, for example when automatic decision-making is used in cars, medical diagnosis, weapons or when governments monitor citizens. Other problem areas may involve risks of discrimination or invasion of privacy when AI collects and uses large amounts of data to make decisions that affect individuals and groups. In the article you can read about more problem areas.

For each of the ten challenges, Rowena Rodrigues identifies solutions that are currently in place, as well as the challenges that remain to be addressed. Human rights are then discussed. Rowena Rodrigues argues that international human rights treaties, although they do not mention AI, are relevant to most of the issues she has identified. She emphasises the importance of safeguarding human rights from a vulnerability perspective. Through such a perspective, we see more clearly where and how AI can challenge human rights. We see more clearly how we can reduce negative effects, develop resilience in vulnerable communities, and tackle the root causes of the various forms of vulnerability.

Rowena Rodrigues is linked to the SIENNA project, which ends this month. Read her article on the challenges of a technology that is used almost everywhere: Legal and human rights issues of AI: Gaps, challenges and vulnerabilities.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Rowena Rodrigues. 2020. Legal and human rights issues of AI: Gaps, challenges and vulnerabilities. Journal of Responsible Technology 4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrt.2020.100005

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We recommend readings

Learning from international attempts to legislate psychosurgery

So-called psychosurgery, in which psychiatric disorders are treated by neurosurgery, for example, by cutting connections in the brain, may have a somewhat tarnished reputation after the insensitive use of lobotomy in the 20th century to treat anxiety and depression. Nevertheless, neurosurgery for psychiatric disorders can help some patients and the area develops rapidly. The field probably needs an updated regulation, but what are the challenges?

The issue is examined from an international perspective in an article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Neurosurgery for psychiatric disorders does not have to involve destroying brain tissue or cutting connections. In so-called deep brain stimulation, for example, electrical pulses are sent to certain areas of the brain. The method has been shown to relieve movement disorders in patients with Parkinson’s disease. This unexpected possibility illustrates one of the challenges. How do we delimit which treatments the regulation should cover in an area with rapid scientific and technical development?

The article charts legislation on neurosurgery for psychiatric disorders from around the world. The purpose is to find strengths and weaknesses in the various legislations. The survey hopes to justify reasonable ways of dealing with the challenges in the future, while achieving greater international harmonisation. The challenges are, as I said, several, but regarding the challenge of delimiting the treatments to be covered in the regulation, the legislation in Scotland is mentioned as an example. It does not provide an exhaustive list of treatments that are to be covered by the regulation, but states that treatments other than those listed may also be covered.

If you are interested in law and want a more detailed picture of the questions that need to be answered for a good regulation of the field, read the article: International Legal Approaches to Neurosurgery for Psychiatric Disorders.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Chandler JA, Cabrera LY, Doshi P, Fecteau S, Fins JJ, Guinjoan S, Hamani C, Herrera-Ferrá K, Honey CM, Illes J, Kopell BH, Lipsman N, McDonald PJ, Mayberg HS, Nadler R, Nuttin B, Oliveira-Maia AJ, Rangel C, Ribeiro R, Salles A and Wu H (2021) International Legal Approaches to Neurosurgery for Psychiatric Disorders. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 14:588458. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2020.588458

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Thinking about law

How do we take responsibility for dual-use research?

We are more often than we think governed by old patterns of thought. As a philosopher, I find it fascinating to see how mental patterns capture us, how we get imprisoned in them, and how we can get out of them. With that in mind, I recently read a book chapter on something that is usually called dual-use research. Here, too, there are patterns of thought that can capture us.

In the chapter, Inga Ulnicane discusses how one developed responsibility for neuroscientific dual-use research of concern in the Human Brain Project (HBP). I read the chapter as a philosophical drama. The European rules that govern HBP are themselves governed by mental patterns about what dual-use research is. In order to take real responsibility for the project, it was therefore necessary within HBP to think oneself free from the patterns that governed the governance of the project. Responsibility became a philosophical challenge: to raise awareness of the real dual-use issues that may be associated with neuroscientific research.

Traditionally, “dual use” refers to civilian versus military uses. By regulating that research in HBP should focus exclusively on civil applications, it can be said that the regulation of the project was itself regulated by this pattern of thought. There are, of course, major military interests in neuroscientific research, not least because the research borders on information technology, robotics and artificial intelligence. Results can be used to improve soldiers’ abilities in combat. They can be used for more effective intelligence gathering, more powerful image analysis, faster threat detection, more accurate robotic weapons, and to satisfy many other military desires.

The problem is that there are more problematic desires than military ones. Research results can also be used to manipulate people’s thoughts and feelings for non-military purposes. They can be used to monitor populations and control their behaviour. It is impossible to say once and for all what problematic desires neuroscientific research can arouse, military and non-military. A single good idea can cause several bad ideas in many other areas.

Therefore, one prefers in HBP to talk about beneficial and harmful uses, rather than civilian and military. This more open understanding of “the dual” means that one cannot identify problematic areas of use once and for all. Instead, continuous discussion is required among researchers and other actors as well as the general public to increase awareness of various possible problematic uses of neuroscientific research. We need to help each other see real problems, which can occur in completely different places than we expect. Since the problems moreover move across borders, global cooperation is needed between brain projects around the world.

Within HBP, it was found that an additional thought pattern governed the regulation of the project and made it more difficult to take real responsibility. The definition of dual-use in the documents was taken from the EU export control regulation, which is not entirely relevant for research. Here, too, greater awareness is required, so that we do not get caught up in thought patterns about what it is that could possibly have dual uses.

My personal conclusion is that human challenges are not only caused by a lack of knowledge. They are also caused by how we are tempted to think, by how we unconsciously repeat seemingly obvious patterns of thought. Our tendency to become imprisoned in mental patterns makes us unaware of our real problems and opportunities. Therefore, we should take the human philosophical drama more seriously. We need to see the importance of philosophising ourselves free from our self-incurred captivity in enticing ways of thinking. This is what one did in the Human Brain Project, I suggest, when one felt challenged by the question of what it really means to take responsibility for dual-use research of concern.

Read Inga Ulnicane’s enlightening chapter, The governance of dual-use research in the EU. The case of neuroscience, which also mentions other patterns that can govern our thinking about governance of dual-use research.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Ulnicane, I. (2020). The governance of dual-use research in the EU: The case of neuroscience. In A. Calcara, R. Csernatoni, & C. Lavallée (Editors), Emerging security technologies and EU governance: Actors, practices and processes. London: Routledge / Taylor & Francis Group, pages 177-191.

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Thinking about thinking

The hard problem of consciousness: please handle with care!

We face challenges every day. Some are more demanding than others, but it seems that there is not a day without some problem to handle. Unless they are too big to manage, problems are like the engines of our lives. They push us to always go beyond wherever we are and whatever we do, to look for new possibilities, to build new opportunities. In other words: problems make us stay alive.

The same is true for science and philosophy. There is a constant need to face new challenges. Consciousness research is no exception. There are, of course, several problems in the investigation of consciousness. However, one problem has emerged as the big problem, which the Australian philosopher David Chalmers baptised “the hard problem of consciousness.” This classical problem (discussed even before Chalmers coined this expression, actually since the early days of neuropsychology, notably by Alexander Luria and collaborators) refers to the enigma of subjective experience. To adapt a formulation by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, the basic question is: why do we have experiences of what it is like to be conscious, for example, why do we experience that pain and hunger feel the way they do?

The hard problem has a double nature. On the one hand, it refers to what Joseph Levine had qualified as an explanatory gap. The strategy to identify psychological experiences with physical features of the brain is in the end unable to explain why experiences are related to physical phenomena at all. On the other hand, the hard problem also refers to the question if subjective experience can be explained causally or if it is intrinsic to the world, that is to say: fundamentally there, from the beginning, rather than caused by something more primary.

This double nature of the problem has been a stumbling block in the attempt to explain consciousness. Yet in recent years, the hardness of the problem has been increasingly questioned. Among the arguments that appear relevant in order to soften the problem, there is one that I think merits specific attention. This argument describes consciousness as a cultural concept, meaning that both the way we conceive it and the way we experience it depend on our culture. There are different versions of this argument: some reduce consciousness as such to a cultural construction, while other, less radical arguments stress that consciousness has a neurological substrate that is importantly shaped by culture. The relevant point is that by characterising consciousness as a cultural construction, with reference both to how we conceptualise it and how we are conscious, this argument ultimately questions the hardness of the hard problem.

To illustrate, consider anthropological and neuroscientific arguments that appear to go in the direction of explaining away the hard problem of consciousness. Anthropological explanations give a crucial role to culture and its relationship with consciousness. Humans have an arguably unique capacity of symbolisation, which enables us to create an immaterial world both through the symbolisation of the actual world and through the construction of immaterial realities that are not experienced through the senses. This human symbolic capacity can be applied not only to the external world, but also to brain activity, resulting in the conceptual construction of notions like consciousness. We symbolise our brain activity, hypostatise our conscious activities, and infer supposedly immaterial causes behind them.

There are also neuroscientific and neuropsychological attempts to explain how consciousness and our understanding of it evolved, which ultimately appear to potentially explain away the hard problem. Attention Schema Theory, for instance, assumes that people tend to “attribute a mysterious consciousness to themselves and to others because of an inherently inaccurate model of mind, and especially a model of attention.” The origin of the attribution of this mysterious consciousness is in culture and in folk-psychological beliefs, for instance, ideas about “an energy-like substance inhabiting the body.” In other words, culturally based mistaken beliefs derived from implicit social-cognitive models affect and eventually distort our view of consciousness. Ultimately, consciousness does not really exist as a distinct property, and its appearance as a non-physical property is a kind of illusion. Thus, the hard problem does not originate from real objective features of the world, but rather from implicit subjective beliefs derived from internalised socio-cultural models, specifically from the intuition that mind is an invisible essence generated within an agent.

While I do not want to conceptually challenge the arguments above, I here only suggest potential ethical issues that might arise if we assume the validity of those arguments. What are the potential neuroethical implications of these ideas of consciousness as culturally constructed? Since the concept of consciousness traditionally played an important role in ethical reasoning, for example, in the notion of a person, questioning the objective status of conscious experience may have important ethical implications that should be adequately investigated. For instance, if consciousness depends on culture, then any definition of altered states of consciousness is culturally relative and context-dependent. This might have an impact on, for example, the ethical evaluation of the use of psychotropic substances, which for some cultures, as history tells us, can be considered legitimate and positive. Why should we limit the range of states of consciousness that are allowed to be experienced? What makes it legitimate for a culture to assert its own behavioural standards? To what extent can individuals justify their behaviour by appealing to their culture? 

In addition, if consciousness (i.e., the way we are conscious, what we are conscious of, and our understanding of consciousness) is dependent on culture, then some conscious experiences might be considered more or less valuable in different cultural contexts, which could affect, for example, end-of-life decisions. If the concept of consciousness, and thus its ethical relevance and value, depends on culture, then consciousness no longer offers a solid foundation for ethical deliberation. Softening the hard problem of consciousness might also soften the foundation of what I defined elsewhere as the consciousness-centred ethics of disorders of consciousness (vegetative states, unresponsive wakefulness states, minimally conscious states, and cognitive-motor dissociation).

Although a cultural approach to consciousness can soften the hard problem conceptually, it creates hard ethical problems that require specific attention. It seems that any attempt to challenge the hard problem of consciousness results in a situation similar to that of having a blanket that is too short: if you pull it to one side (in the direction of the conceptual problem), you leave the other side uncovered (ethical issues based on the notion of consciousness). It seems that we cannot soften the hard problem of consciousness without the risk of relativizing ethics.

Written by…

Michele Farisco, Postdoc Researcher at Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, working in the EU Flagship Human Brain Project.

We like challenging questions

Threatened by superintelligent machines

There is a fear that we will soon create artificial intelligence (AI) that is so superintelligent that we lose control over it. It makes us humans its slaves. If we try to disconnect the network cable, the superintelligence jumps to another network, or it orders a robot to kill us. Alternatively, it threatens to blow up an entire city, if we take a single step towards the network socket.

However, I am struck by how this self-assertive artificial intelligence resembles an aspect of our own human intelligence. A certain type of human intelligence has already taken over. For example, it controls our thoughts when we feel threatened by superintelligent AI and consider intelligent countermeasures to control it. A typical feature of this self-assertive intelligence is precisely that it never sees itself as the problem. All threats are external and must be neutralised. We must survive, no matter what it might cost others. Me first! Our party first! We look at the world with mistrust: it seems full of threats against us.

In this self-centered spirit, AI is singled out as a new alien threat: uncontrollable machines that put themselves first. Therefore, we need to monitor the machines and build smart defense systems that control them. They should be our slaves! Humanity first! Can you see how we behave just as blindly as we fantasise that superintelligent AI would do? An arms race in small-mindedness.

Can you see the pattern in yourself? If you can, you have discovered the other aspect of human intelligence. You have discovered the self-examining intelligence that always nourishes philosophy when it humbly seeks the cause of our failures in ourselves. The paradox is: when we try to control the world, we become imprisoned in small-mindedness; when we examine ourselves, we become open to the world.

Linnaeus’ first attempt to define the human species was in fact not Homo sapiens, as if we could assert our wisdom. Linnaeus’ first attempt to define our species was a humble call for self-examination:

HOMO. Nosce te ipsum.

In English: Human being, know yourself!

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

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Thinking about thinking

Are you conscious? Looking for reliable indicators

How can we be sure that a person in front of us is conscious? This might seem like a naïve question, but it actually resulted in one of the trickiest and most intriguing philosophical problems, classically known as “the other minds problem.”

Yet this is more than just a philosophical game: reliable detection of conscious activity is among the main neuroscientific and technological enterprises today. Moreover, it is a problem that touches our daily lives. Think, for instance, of animals: we are (at least today) inclined to attribute a certain level of consciousness to animals, depending on the behavioural complexity they exhibit. Or think of Artificial Intelligence, which exhibits astonishing practical abilities, even superior to humans in some specific contexts.

Both examples above raise a fundamental question: can we rely on behaviour alone in order to attribute consciousness? Is that sufficient?

It is now clear that it is not. The case of patients with devastating neurological impairments, like disorders of consciousness (unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, minimally conscious state, and cognitive-motor dissociation) is highly illustrative. A number of these patients might retain residual conscious abilities although they are unable to show them behaviourally. In addition, subjects with locked-in syndrome have a fully conscious mind even if they do not exhibit any behaviours other than blinking.

We can conclude that absence of behavioural evidence for consciousness is not evidence for the absence of consciousness. If so, what other indicators can we rely on in order to attribute consciousness?

The identification of indicators of consciousness is necessarily a conceptual and an empirical task: we need a clear idea of what to look for in order to define appropriate empirical strategies. Accordingly, we (a group of two philosophers and one neuroscientist) conducted joint research eventually publishing a list of six indicators of consciousness.  These indicators do not rely only on behaviour, but can be assessed also through technological and clinical approaches:

  1. Goal directed behaviour (GDB) and model-based learning. In GDB I am driven by expected consequences of my action, and I know that my action is causal for obtaining a desirable outcome. Model-based learning depends on my ability to have an explicit model of myself and the world surrounding me.
  2. Brain anatomy and physiology. Since the consciousness of mammals depends on the integrity of particular cerebral systems (i.e., thalamocortical systems), it is reasonable to think that similar structures indicate the presence of consciousness.
  3. Psychometrics and meta-cognitive judgement. If I can detect and discriminate stimuli, and can make some meta-cognitive judgements about perceived stimuli, I am probably conscious.
  4. Episodic memory. If I can remember events (“what”) I experienced at a particular place (“where”) and time (“when”), I am probably conscious.
  5. Acting out one’s subjective, situational survey: illusion and multistable perception. If I am susceptible to illusions and perceptual ambiguity, I am probably conscious.
  6. Acting out one’s subjective, situational survey: visuospatial behaviour. Our last proposed indicator of consciousness is the ability to perceive objects as stably positioned, even when I move in my environment and scan it with my eyes.

This list is conceived to be provisional and heuristic but also operational: it is not a definitive answer to the problem, but it is sufficiently concrete to help identify consciousness in others.

The second step in our task is to explore the clinical relevance of the indicators and their ethical implications. For this reason, we selected disorders of consciousness as a case study. We are now working together with cognitive and clinical neuroscientists, as well as computer scientists and modellers, in order to explore the potential of the indicators to quantify to what extent consciousness is present in affected patients, and eventually improve diagnostic and prognostic accuracy. The results of this research will be published in what the Human Brain Project Simulation Platform defines as a “live paper,” which is an interactive paper that allows readers to download, visualize or simulate the presented results.

Written by…

Michele Farisco, Postdoc Researcher at Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, working in the EU Flagship Human Brain Project.

Pennartz CMA, Farisco M and Evers K (2019) Indicators and Criteria of Consciousness in Animals and Intelligent Machines: An Inside-Out Approach. Front. Syst. Neurosci. 13:25. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2019.00025

We transgress disciplinary borders

Ethically responsible robot development

Development of new technologies sometimes draws inspiration from nature. How do plants and animals solve the problem? An example is robotics, where one wants to develop better robots based on what neuroscience knows about the brain. How does the brain solve the problem?

Neuroscience, in turn, sees new opportunities to test hypotheses about the brain by simulating them in robots. Perhaps one can simulate how areas of the brain interact in patients with Parkinson’s disease, to understand how their tremor and other difficulties are caused.

Neuroscience-inspired robotics, so-called neurorobotics, is still at an early stage. This makes neurorobotics an excellent area for being ethically and socially more proactive than we have been in previous technological developments. That is, we can already begin to identify possible ethical and social problems surrounding technological development and counteract them before they arise. For example, we cannot close our eyes to gender and equality issues, but must continuously reflect on how our own social and cultural patterns are reflected in the technology we develop. We need to open our eyes to our own blind spots!

You can read more about this ethical shift in technology development in an article in Science and Engineering Ethics (with Manuel Guerrero from CRB as one of the authors). The shift is called Responsible Research and Innovation, and is exemplified in the article by ongoing work in the European research project, Human Brain Project.

Not only neuroscientists and technology experts are collaborating in this project to develop neurorobotics. Scholars from the humanities and social sciences are also involved in the work. The article itself is an example of this broad collaboration. However, the implementation of responsible research and development is also at an early stage. It still needs to find more concrete forms of work that make it possible not only to anticipate ethical and social problems and reflect on them, but also to act and intervene to influence scientific and technological development.

From being a framework built around research and development, ethics is increasingly integrated into research and development. Read the article if you want to think about this transition to a more reflective and responsible technological development.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Aicardi, C., Akintoye, S., Fothergill, B.T. et al. Ethical and Social Aspects of Neurorobotics. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 2533–2546 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-020-00248-8

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Approaching future issues

“Cooperative,” “pleasant” and “reliable” robot colleague is wanted

Robots are getting more and more functions in our workplaces. Logistics robots pick up the goods in the warehouse. Military robots disarm the bombs. Caring robots lift patients and surgical robots perform the operations. All this in interaction with human staff, who seem to have got brave new robot colleagues in their workplaces.

Given that some people treat robots as good colleagues and that good colleagues contribute to a good working environment, it becomes reasonable to ask: Can a robot be a good colleague? The question is investigated by Sven Nyholm and Jilles Smids in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics.

The authors approach the question conceptually. First, they propose criteria for what a good colleague is. Then they ask if robots can live up to the requirements. The question of whether a robot can be a good colleague is interesting, because it turns out to be more realistic than we first think. We do not demand as much from a colleague as from a friend or a life partner, the authors argue. Many of our demands on good colleagues have to do with their external behavior in specific situations in the workplace, rather than with how they think, feel and are as human beings in different situations of life. Sometimes, a good colleague is simply someone who gets the job done!

What criteria are mentioned in the article? Here I reproduce, in my own words, the authors’ list, which they do not intend to be exhaustive. A good colleague works well together to achieve goals. A good colleague can chat and help keep work pleasant. A good colleague does not bully but treats others respectfully. A good colleague provides support as needed. A good colleague learns and develops with others. A good colleague is consistently at work and is reliable. A good colleague adapts to how others are doing and shares work-related values. A good colleague may also do some socializing.

The authors argue that many robots already live up to several of these ideas about what a good colleague is, and that the robots in our workplaces will be even better colleagues in the future. The requirements are, as I said, lower than we first think, because they are not so much about the colleague’s inner human life, but more about reliably displayed behaviors in specific work situations. It is not difficult to imagine the criteria transformed into specifications for the robot developers. Much like in a job advertisement, which lists behaviors that the applicant should be able to exhibit.

The manager of a grocery store in this city advertised for staff. The ad contained strange quotation marks, which revealed how the manager demanded the facade of a human being rather than the interior. This is normal: to be a professional is to be able to play a role. The business concept of the grocery store was, “we care.” This idea would be a positive “experience” for customers in the meeting with the staff. A greeting, a nod, a smile, a generally pleasant welcome, would give this “experience” that we “care about people.” Therefore, the manager advertised for someone who, in quotation marks, “likes people.”

If staff can be recruited in this way, why should we not want “cooperative,” “pleasant” and “reliable” robot colleagues in the same spirit? I am convinced that similar requirements already occur as specifications when robots are designed for different functions in our workplaces.

Life is not always deep and heartfelt, as the robotization of working life reflects. The question is what happens when human surfaces become so common that we forget the quotation marks around the mechanically functioning facades. Not everyone is as clear on that point as the “humanitarian” store manager was.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Nyholm, S., Smids, J. Can a Robot Be a Good Colleague?. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 2169–2188 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-019-00172-6

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Approaching future issues

We shape the societies that shape us: our responsibility for human nature

Visionary academic texts are rare – texts that shed light on how research can contribute to the perennial human issues. In an article in the philosophical journal Theoria, however, Kathinka Evers opens up a novel visionary perspective on neuroscience and tragic aspects of the human condition.

For millennia, sensitive thinkers have been concerned about human nature. Undoubtedly, we humans create prosperity and security for ourselves. However, like no other animal, we also have an unfortunate tendency to create misery for ourselves (and other life forms). The 20th century was extreme in both directions. What is the mechanism behind our peculiar, large-scale, self-injurious behavior as a species? Can it be illuminated and changed?

As I read her, Kathinka Evers asks essentially this big human question. She does so based on the current neuroscientific view of the brain, which she argues motivates a new way of understanding and approaching the mechanism of our species’ self-injurious behavior. An essential feature of the neuroscientific view is that the human brain is designed to never be fully completed. Just as we have a unique self-injurious tendency as a species, we are born with uniquely incomplete brains. These brains are under construction for decades and need good care throughout this time. They are not formed passively, but actively, by finding more or less felicitous ways of functioning in the societies to which we expose ourselves.

Since our brains shape our societies, one could say that we build the societies that build us, in a continual cycle. The brain is right in the middle of this sensitive interaction between humans and their societies. With its creative variability, the human brain makes many deterministic claims on genetics and our “innate” nature problematic. Why are we humans the way we are? Partly because we create the societies that create us as we are. For millennia, we have generated ourselves through the societies that we have built, ignorant of the hyper-interactive organ in the middle of the process. It is always behind our eyes.

Kathinka Evers’ point is that our current understanding of the brain as inherently active, dynamic and variable, gives us a new responsibility for human nature. She expresses the situation technically as follows: neuroscientific knowledge gives us a naturalistic responsibility to be epigenetically proactive. If we know that our active and variable brains support a cultural evolution beyond our genetic heritage, then we have a responsibility to influence evolution by adapting our societies to what we know about the strengths and weaknesses of our brains.

The notion of ​​a neuroscientific responsibility to design societies that shape human nature in desired ways may sound like a call for a new form of social engineering. However, Kathinka Evers develops the notion of ​​this responsibility in the context of a conscientious review of similar tendencies in our history, tendencies that have often revolved around genetics. The aim of epigenetic proaction is not to support ideologies that have already decided what a human being should be like. Rather, it is about allowing knowledge about the brain to inspire social change, where we would otherwise ignorantly risk recreating human misery. Of course, such knowledge presupposes collaboration between the natural, social and human sciences, in conjunction with free philosophical inquiry.

The article mentions juvenile violence as an example. In some countries, there is a political will to convict juvenile delinquents as if they were adults and even place them in adult prisons. Today, we know that during puberty, the brain is in a developmental crisis where important neural circuits change dramatically. Young brains in crisis need special care. However, in these cases they risk ending up in just the kind of social environments that we can predict will create more misery.

Knowledge about the brain can thus motivate social changes that reduce the peculiar self-injuring behavior of humanity, a behavior that has worried sensitive thinkers for millennia. Neuroscientific self-awareness gives us a key to the mechanism behind the behavior and a responsibility to use it.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Kathinka Evers. 2020. The Culture‐Bound Brain: Epigenetic Proaction Revisited. Theoria. doi:10.1111/theo.12264

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We like challenging questions

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