Neuroscientist exploring the ethics of neural identity

Professor Rafael Yuste is contributing to a seminal paradigm shift in neuroscience, and is a leader in exploring the ethical consequences emerging from the confluence of neurotechnology and artificial intelligence.In selecting Yuste, the jury not only recognized his vision and leadership within the scientific community, but his deep commitment to promoting a global conversation about the ethical implications of rapidly accelerating neuro-technology. His work to bring together diverse thinkers in neuroscience, philosophy, law, industry and elsewhere to develop new thinking about “neuro rights” is critical to our future.Rafael is Professor of Biological Sciences and Neurosciences at Columbia University, New York. A Spanish-American neurobiologist, he is one of the initiators of BRAINI. Launched in 2013, the goal of this multidisciplinary, U.S. government funded initiative is to transform the study of the brain with the development of radically more powerful recording technologies using novel physics and engineering, deeply integrated with theory. This initiative has spawned an important series of global counterparts.Born in Madrid, Rafael originally trained as a medical doctor, later shifting to neuroscience (Rockefeller University) and physics (Bell Labs). This unusual multidisciplinary background contributed to the concept that eventually underpinned BRAINI and also underpins his more recent focus on the intersection of neuroscience and AI.

A Tällberg conversation, September 2018

BRAINI is now well established, well funded and widely imitated. How did it start?
This whole thing was not planned. It starts with a brainstorming meeting at a 2013 conference in England, where I proposed this idea to launch a large-scale project to essentially do to neuroscience what was done to the human genome. That ended up happening. I was able to crystallize a group of people. We somehow convinced the White House, over a period of a year and a half, that became the U.S. Brain Initiative. In a way, that torch was passed. There’s now administrations and a lot of people involved, 500 labs around the country, around the world.After that success, I thought, “Well, you know what, this is fantastic but maybe we should think ahead.” That’s where I got involved in this global brain initiative council…. A little bit I was luck and maybe being at the right place at the right time. I was able to crystallize a group of people from different countries to team up together. That took place in New York, in the meeting during the U.N. It just actually started last December in Australia, where we have a group of countries that agreed to build this international brain initiative.
How has your focus shifted since then?
In the middle of all of that effort, and also through our own work in the lab, we have increasingly been able to read the activity of brains of animals, and manipulate activity of brains of animals. I was always thinking at the back of my mind, “This is quite good but there are ethical implications that someone should look at.” I would argue that the most important thing that I may ever do in my life is to contribute to putting a brake, in terms of the ethical guidelines for the neuro technology of the future. It turns out that this is merging with AI.
What are the implications?
If you believe that the mind comes out of the brain and the brain is just a collection of neurons that are firing, when scientists like ourselves get into it and we decipher these circuits and decipher these connections, we’re going to decipher the underpinnings of the mind. The same tools that we need to help patients in order to cure, let’s say schizophrenics or epileptics to be able to change the activity of their brains, exactly the same tools are the ones that people can use to go in and change people’s minds.…Groups of people are working on direct reading of brain activity so that you don’t have to go through your fingers into your device, you could go directly into the web or cloud or the computer.
If you think about that scenario, then it’s really is very, very profound and serious. If you think that computers have revolutionized society, well wait until they merge with neuroscience. That’s going to affect the core of what it means to be human. Things like our own identity, it’s up for grabs. Our agency, our freewill, the ability for us to actually make our own decisions.
How immediate are these issues?
The reason I’m so worried about these issues of ethics in neuroscience and AI is because in my own lab, we just have submitted a paper in which we can change the behavior of the mouse by going in with lasers and auto genetically turning on or off particular neurons. We make the mouse do one thing or the other thing. This is already possible in mice today in my lab. So, if it’s possible in mice, it’s possible with humans. I’m not talking about science fiction.
What should be done - and who should do it?
My dream is to change the universal declaration of human rights by adding specific protection for human identify, for free will, equality of access to augmenting technologies, and to prevent bias and discrimination by this neuroscience, AI methods…I think it’s an issue of human rights. It goes to the definition of what is a human. Who are we? Are we defined by our personal identity, by our agency, our free will? If we are, then we better say it and protect it because otherwise, it’s just going to get run over and sold.

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Professor Rafael Yuste's Bio

Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist, is Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. He studies the function and pathology of the cerebral cortex, using optical methods to measure and modify the activity of its neural circuits.

Yuste obtained his M.D. at the Universidad Autónoma in Madrid. After working in Sydney Brenner’s laboratory at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, he was a Ph.D. student with Larry Katz in Torsten Wiesel’s laboratory at Rockefeller University, and postdoctoral student of David Tank at Bell Laboratories. He joined Columbia in 1996 and is currently director of its Neurotechnology Center and co-director of its Kavli Institute for Brain Circuits.

In 2011 Yuste led a small group of researchers who proposed the Brain Activity Map, precursor to the US BRAIN Initiative, and in 2016 he helped coordinate the launch of an International BRAIN Initiative. He is presently involved in establishing ethical guidelines for Neurotechnology and Artificial Intelligence (“NeuroRights”).

Yuste has obtained awards from the Mayor of New York City, the Society for Neuroscience and the Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. He is a member of Spain’s Royal Academies of Medicine and of Science.

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