James Giordano & Neuroscience: Political, Security, Intelligence, and Military Issues
June 09, 2017
On April 13, 2017, The Center For Policy On Emerging Technologies hosted our Teleconference–Neuroscience: Political, Security, Intelligence, and Military Issues featuring new C-PET Senior Fellow Dr. James Giordano of Georgetown University. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of the teleconference, and should not be quoted without confirmation from the relevant participant. Thanks to Research Fellow Anna Kling for working on the transcript, and Managing Research Assistant Adam Turosky.
Neuroscience: Political, Security, Intelligence, and Military Issues
Conversation between Dr. Nigel Cameron and Dr. James Giordano
Nigel Cameron Opening Remarks: Let me welcome you to this teleconference. This is Nigel Cameron with the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies in Washington DC. Very glad to have a gathering around the fascinating question and our most recently welcomed senior fellow, Jim Giordano.
This is in fact C-PETs 10th year. We are planning some sort of celebratory activities later in the year, but presently we’re celebrating with some particularly interesting intellectual conversations.
Please do mute your phones. You should be on default mute but I can hear something on the line here which suggest something is going a little wrong. Occasionally you hear all kinds of things off that are not intended. So thank you, thank you very much.
A word or two about C-PET first: We’ve been going for 10 years. We are non-partisan. We are also not in hoc to corporate lobbying money, which is of course one way in which non-partisan think tanks in DC can do quite well. We have retained independence and poverty, which tend to go together here. We’ve been going for 10 years. In fact, 9 years ago now we had our first early major event with a conference on the upcoming election. The election of course which Mister Obama then won.
Looking at the range of science and technology questions with panels on space policy and biotech and nano and so on. Our concern is to raise long term questions. Of course, being in the policy center of the world, you need to have some sort of short term traction. And so we thought to balance the two in our activities.
You were with us earlier in the year. We had a series of teleconferences on critical infrastructure and resiliences used like EMP, internet of things and related questions.
Next up in terms of our sponsored events, we collaborate as knowledge partner with Forum – Forum Europe, Forum Global – and their conferences on the internet of things. In fact, I shall be in Brussels next week and a couple of weeks later, co-chairing events on IoT, and then on connected cars.
Next up in this series of teleconferences we have a short series, which my colleague Dr. Nagy Hanna, former head of Corporate Strategy at the World Bank is putting together on the innovation of global development. That will be announced soon. We don’t have dates to schedule but it is in process.
So, we’re very glad to have you join us. The procedure for these calls is – think like a radio show with a limited audience. We don’t like people just jumping in. If you’d like to raise a question, you’re invited to drop a very quick e-mail to email@example.com, our admin address. Just saying in a sentence what you want to talk about, who you are, and I will bring then you into the conversation later as the opportunity presents so we can keep some sort of order here.
So to begin let me introduce Dr. James Giordano, who is our distinguished guest today. A word or two about his really quite extensive bio. He is professor in the departments of neurology and biochemistry and chief of the Neuroethics Studies Programme at Georgetown University. He is also co-director of the O’Neill Institute Pellegrino Programme in Brain Science and Global Health Law and Policy at Georgetown University Medical School.
And in parallel with that, he is a task leader and Senior Research Fellow of the European Union’s Human Brain Project and he also has an appointment at a European University with an interest in neuroscience at the Coburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany. He also has advisory roles in relation to a number of government agencies. And beyond that, I’ll invite him to explain a little bit about his work and how it all comes together.
We are very pleased to have Dr. Giordano joining us today. Jim – assuming you’re on the line there, are you there?
James Giordano: I am, Nigel, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Nigel Cameron: Excellent. The technology works. We had one of these a week ago or so and our participant was actually in Canada and for some reason could not dial the US number required on the phone system of whatever the organization was he was in. So, we had a little bit of fun.
Anyway, delighted you’re joining us. I thought just to begin, maybe you could just talk a bit about yourself, your work, how is it coming together. It isn’t all that typical to have someone with the appointments you do both on the science side and the ethics side and obviously the policy (and) military side. But just talk a little bit about you. Introduce yourself as if we were at a relaxed cocktail party and then we can get into some more conversation.
James Giordano Opening Remarks: Thank you. Well, I suffer from what I consider to be something of a good problem; namely I get rather easily bored. I’ve been very fortunate in that having a career in the brain sciences has well-suited my low threshold for boredom. The brain sciences have been developing at a very fast pace and, as a neuroscientist primarily working in translational aspects of the field, I’ve been able to experience that rapid growth and broad ranging “bench to bedside, and somewhat beyond” span of influence that the field is exerting. The neurosciences are being ever more widely used in a variety of different disciplines; not least of which, of course, is medicine. But increasingly, the tools and methods of brain science are spilling out of the medical silo into the social sphere, the public sphere and even the military arena. In many ways, that pattern of effect has longs been the case with so many types of science and technology.
My particular career as a brain scientist is primarily nested in neuropharmacology- the neurochemistry of the brain, and also in neuropathology – which is essentially studying what and how things go wrong in the brain and the nervous system. That career path has allowed me a pretty broad palette with which to study a variety of different aspects of neurological structure and function and use a host of tools to both engage those studies, and also translate those studies into actionable resources in the medical sphere, and in some cases domains beyond what is clinical. This is called the para-clinical realm, in which tools and techniques of the brain sciences are used for education and occupational purposes. And, in these regards, through applications in training and performance optimization, we can exert a role for neuroscience in the military. Military uses of brain science have been an interest of mine for a long time. Of course, using science for military purposes is not a new development. But the employment of brain science in military and defense operations has been steadily progressing, and I’ve been fortunate to have had opportunities to work on the forefront of a number of those translational efforts.
My career could be typified as an academic, at least for the most part. My background in basic and translational research was fairly traditional and helped to build my interest, knowledge and experience in the brain sciences and their various uses. As my career – and experience – progressed, I had increasing opportunities to consult with a variety of governmental and non-governmental agencies. Much of the work I had done had been sponsored, at least in part, by governmental agencies, including the Department of Defence. First as a post-doc some thirty odd years ago, and then again in the mid-2000s, I’ve been supported by grants from the US Navy that funded work that was focused upon the ways brain sciences could be harnessed to both develop protective mechanisms for a variety of military personnel, and in some cases might also be leveraged for biological weapons. This latter work was directed at exploring how new neuro-active drugs that were coming to the market may be developed into weaponizable agents. So in tracing my career, I can describe about a 30-year history of being involved, at least in some ways, with studying the potential utility of the techniques, and technologies of the brain sciences to military, intelligence, security, and defence operations and agenda.
In 2005, I joined the faculty at Georgetown University. I took a leave of absence from 2008 to 2012 to work with a think tank in the Washington DC area, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, and there took the helm of their then nascent Center for Neurotechnology Studies. There we worked on developing concepts that were contributory towards first a proposed initiative called the Decade of the Mind – large scale governmental agenda in neural and cognitive science promotion that didn’t gain traction, but was in some ways instrumental towards what ultimately became the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies or BRAIN initiative, which, as you know, was launched during the second term of the Obama administration. Along with that, we were working to try to understand the utility of the brain sciences and neurotechnologies that were – and could be – leverageable in a various spheres. Of course, the major uses were seen in medicine, and in many ways, such uses can be regarded as the so-called benevolent push, if you will, of much of science and technology. But we use science and technology to advance human survival, to advance human flourishing, and in these ways often employ these tools to manipulate our environment, ourselves and others. And when we begin to contemplate what is “good”, and how we define the “good” of such uses, we’re now talking about ethics. But, it becomes important to understand that what may be good for me may not be good for you, and vice versa. And very often, nation states and even non-state actors can employ science and technology – as they always have throughout all human history – to be able to advance their ideology and their agenda. And it became quite clear that this was – and remains – the case with regard to the ethics of the brain sciences, and particularly the ethical issues that are generated by brain science that could be put to use in military operations.
We’re talking about the 2008 time period. And importantly, at about that time a number of international organizations began to look at this growing momentum in the brain sciences with increasing interest. These groups were looking at both its potential utility in medicine, and also in military domains. Interestingly, a 2008 report by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science here in the United States looked specifically at the brain sciences and the technologies that are being developed as both research tools and interventional implements to be employed in national security, intelligence and defence operations, in other words for military intelligence and warfare purposes.
We were focusing on these possibilities as well, and addressed these issues in a number of seminars and conferences, and published our findings in a series of neurotechnology reports we had written at the Potomac Institute in conjunction both with university partners like Georgetown, George Mason, and the University of New Mexico, and with international collaborators from the UK, and other NATO nations. But let me just take an aside – and it is an aside that reflects my career. One of the things we know about the brain science is that when we look at the translation from concept to construct, in other words from idea to instrument, in the early 1980s, we were probably looking at about a 15- to 20-year translational timeframe. Here I emphasize that it’s important to bear in mind that in the 1980s this window was 15-20 years. I’ve been doing neuroscience for the better part of 30+ years, and in that span of 30+ years, as in so many other areas of the sciences, there’s been a compression of the time it takes to go from research to development to evaluation to use. At present, in some areas of the brain sciences, this timeframe of development and accomplishment has gotten down to somewhere between only 60 calendar months!
So let me just frame that for you: we’ve gone from about 15-20 years down to about a 5 or so years span of going from a concept – an idea, to a construct – a usable product or information that is solidly grounded and which can be used in some real world application. I think this is probably best exemplified by the timeline that is established and used by for probably one of the most innovative enterprises for science and technology development here in the United States, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. They use a 60 calendar month time to progress science and technology from ideas to deliverables. And I think in many ways, this is also becoming representative of the field of brain research in general. It is rapidly growing, and utilizing very quickly developed methods and technologies to both probe certain theories, and also create tools with which to expand theories and capabilities anew. This is the characteristic “tools to theory – theory to tools” pattern of knowledge and technology growth that we see in other areas of the sciences, but it is certainly and strongly operative within the neurosciences.
So we see that there is this interesting dance, if you will, that brings together and harmonizes science and technology, and technology and science. Please keep in mind that although science can be an endeavour of and for pure knowledge, it is also a human enterprise with which to further other human enterprises. In other words, we rarely engage these research enterprises just for what might be regarded as “science for science’s sake”.
Science is purposive, it’s a human endeavour to be used in some aspect of other human endeavours, and what was axiomatic, and explicit to the BRAIN initiative here in the United States was the translational capability of things being done at the proverbial (research) bench that could be used at the bedside, and even beyond. But of course, those initiatives funded in the United States to a sum greater than one billion dollars, created something of a juggernaut, if you will, of dollars, support and energy into the brain sciences that was coupled to world-wide efforts. The reason I bring that up is that I think it’s really important for the listeners to understand that neuroscience is increasingly a global enterprise. Certainly we see tremendous amounts of high quality neuroscientific research being engaged in western and eastern Europe. We are also seeing a rise of the brain sciences in South America. But I think it’s additionally critical to recognize and acknowledge estimations, not mere speculations and musings, mind you, but modelled estimations – primarily coming from the Neurotechnology Industries Organization, that by 2023 to 2025, there will be a rising presence of non-Western university and commercial enterprises in research, development, testing, evaluation and availability of use in the brain sciences. And the estimations initially postulated that this would probably be something greater than a 50% increase in R/D activity, with China becoming a major – if not the major – player in this non-Western arena. China’s leading role is, and will be based upon, and reflective of large-scale governmental investment in the brain sciences. And I think instrumental to that has been the development, and implementation of an organisation in China called junweikejiwei, which mirrors the intent profile of the United States’ DARPA, with regard to an emphasis upon high-risk, high-yield neuroscience and technology, that is executable in a rapid timeframe to enable translation from concept to constructs within 60 calendar months.
This infusion of energy, funding and scientific talent and capability- both tacitly and more explicitly – was certainly sufficient prompt the United States’ National Academies in 2008 to recognize the potential for brain science to be put to what is referred to as dual use. In other words, the use of neuroscientific research and its applications in ways not necessarily as intended. We’ll get back to the definition of dual use momentarily, but I think it’s important to state that the potential for such use was evident and in fact was explicated in 2008, but the reality of such translations was still seen as (quote) “not ready for prime time”.
But a subsequent report by the Nuffield Council of Bioethics in the UK looked at neuroscience – specifically neurotechnologies – from a slightly different perspective. Taking a somewhat broader dive, not necessarily just to United States’ brain science, but worldwide, they saw the momentum in the brain sciences as being elaborated in a variety of fields, and in this light, dedicated an entire chapter to the possibility of dual use brain science and its realization within 5- to 10-year windows. I think that their estimation was a bit more liberal, yet, at the same time, rather more realistic. What they perceived was that clearly, there were aspects of the brain sciences that were indeed ready for prime time dual use within military scenarios and operations, but also within other areas where there is something of a spill-over from things that are used medically to things that are used for personal optimization, enhancement, and perhaps frank modification of body physiology and structure. This became known as biohacking.
The chapter of the Nuffield Council Report was specifically dedicated to national security, intelligence and defence uses, and looked both at the UK and its allies, inclusive of the United States, which was used as something of an exemplar, vis a vis activities of DARPA, IARPA and the various military services’ foci in the brain sciences. The Nuffield Report suggested that brain sciences were ready to go, at least in key areas, such as the development of drugs, certain microbes, and organic toxins; but all of these fell under the purview and proscriptions of existing signatory treaties and other, less formal agreements between nation states. Of course, it should be borne to mind that although these are were and are signatory treaties, they are not necessarily enforceable.
Now, by 2014, a second report by the National Research Council in the United States recognized that indeed, the neuroscientific and neurotechnological research that was noted four and a half years earlier had now progressed considerably, and this later report noted that in many domains, brain science was ready for prime time dual use within the military, intelligence and security realms. So, in the span of about six years, you see two United States government reports, and an international report that noted and reflected the very rapid growth and development curve of the brain sciences. And this is not only a research growth and development curve, but a research, development, test, evaluation and putative applications in use trajectory. And thus, we are now increasingly concerned about such dual use of neuroscience and neurotechnology.
For those not familiar with the actual concept of dual use – it’s really pretty much axiomatic: You have more than one use of things that are being developed in research, so that they can be applied in different engagements and scenarios. The majority of neuroscientific research as a biomedical science is oriented toward the benevolent aims of medicine. As a biomedical or life science, much of what we learn about nervous systems could be applicable in some domain of human or veterinary medicine. But some things that from the clinical realm may in fact be translatable to knowledge that is useful to enhance our lifestyles, as well. I’m fond of urging my students to simply open any magazine, and they’ll see at least one article about the latest and greatest findings from brain science and what the brain science can inform about this chemical or that chemical in wine, coffee that’s good or bad for your brain, and how neuroscience is providing new findings about exercise, sex – you name it – and how these things affect and are effected by the brain.
In truth, we are, as matter of fact, developing an ever better neuroscientific tool kit; and as a consequence, we are developing increased capability both to study the brain and to translate both what we’re learning about the brain and our capability to influence the brain and the nervous system into very usable domains. This reflects what I’ve referred to as the 3A approach: We can access the brain and the nervous system, we can assess the brain and the nervous system, and we can then use this insight to more powefully affect the brain. Access, assess and affect. But the ability to assess and affect the brain is compelling, provocative, and perhaps controversial, because the brain is at least in some way a locus of what we are as persons. Now, I don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole because I think it’s important to understand that despite all we can do with the neurosciences – and we can do a lot – and all the information we have from the neurosciences – and we know a lot – there are some things that we still don’t know. To wit, we really don’t know exactly how the “great stuff” of what we refer to as the mind, occurs in and from the “grey stuff” of the brain. This is what the philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers refers to as the hard problems or hard questions of neuroscience. But if we bracket that just for a moment, I think what we do understand is that whether the brain is a generator, an antenna or some combination of both – the brain is certainly necessary or the development and articulation of our thoughts, emotions and ultimately our behaviours. So there is a lot of power in those cells.
And being able to assess and access them, and perhaps affect the way they work, gives us both insight to what they do and how they do it, and certain capabilities to then intervene in what they do and how they do it. That’s a rather nice way of saying that we can influence if not control and manipulate thoughts, emotions and behaviours. To be sure, there’s a lot of power there. And as happens so often, and as we recognize, power is leverageable. While I’d love to say that the power that can be rendered by science and technology is universally applied for good, I think we have to take a reflective a pause. Let’s not forget – what I may define as good, you may not. What I may exercise as being the good for me, and my kin and kith, may not necessarily be the same as what you maintain as good for you and yours. And I can also utilize these scientific and technological approaches defensively, so that you don’t intrude upon what I view to be goods and rights that I hold for me and kin, kith, and way of life. This has always been the case; history teaches that the most contemporary science and technology has almost always been used to engage operations against others. So while the idea of using brain science as characteristically oriented toward sustaining human good, increasing our survivability, increasing our flourishing, making our lives easier and improving quality of life might be foremost, definitions of the good can vary, and such science can also be used for differing agendas.
This is when we get into a need for a more explicit formal definition of dual use. The idea of dual use was really first addressed with regard to the possibility of things that were spilling out of the medical state into the military state. But, I think it’s becoming ever more important to reframe that colloquialism, in order to enable greater accuracy of the term and its meaning and implications. To re-iterate, dual use literally means utilizing something for more than one purpose. Based upon a series of conferences, most notable being the Asilomar conference, which addressed the possibility of genetic information and genetic capability to be usurped and directed into other, non-medical, and explicitly military applications, came the concept and term of “dual use research of concern”. This is dual use research that evokes concerns because it may be employed in ways that could be harmful, or at very least incur particular burdens on individuals, groups and public health.
But when we talk about dual use, there is tendency to refer to things that are going to be diverted to use by and in the military. That’s not necessarily so, and the reason is that dual use of neuroscience and neurotechnology obtains a much larger umbra of considerations. And as I had alluded to earlier, the brain sciences are increasingly being used beyond clinical purposes, and moreover, I believe that what will be construed as clinical care in the 21st century will tend to be painted with an ever broadening brush, given the knowledge and capabilities we possess and will soon possess, and the needs, desires and demands that society bring – and may bring – to biomedical science.
Cameron: I’m fascinated in the way that you raised the Asilomar because there were two things in my mind looking back as we sort of frame how the discussion moves here. But well, one was Asilomar and the fact that there was this rising tide of public concern, least among inform public, well the public intellectuals, the OPEC writers and so on, there was a pretty broad discussion going on which partly led to that process and to becoming a kind of symbolic element in this whole discussion of the application of science. And then of course in parallel with that, a bit more recently, you know we’ve had discussion about 15, 17 years ago about cloning and stem cells and so on. The question on my mind was, I just don’t see that there is a rising tide of public intellectuals quite apart from public interest and concern framing the kind of internal conversations that have been taking place in terms of dual use, in terms of the pin number of neuroscience research. So, I am wondering what sense to make of that.
Giordano: Well, let’s speak about Asilomar first. Clearly, I think one of the things that Asilomar brought to light was the idea of being able to assess and perhaps affect the genome, and this had something of a Jehova-quality to it. The idea was that access to ther genome would allow humanity to proverbially ‘play God’ and alter the genetic code to modify the matter that makes us “us”, the essence of the me-ness of me, and in turn, the make-up and ontological basis of other biological organisms as well. And, of course there were public concerns fostered by that.
But I must tell you, there is an equivalent and rising public concern with regard to what the brain sciences are capable of doing. Quite honestly, nigh a week goes by that I don’t get an e-mail – or two or three – depending on what’s happening in neuroscience and what’s getting in the news, from someone who is concerned, sometimes legitimately so and other times in a much more exaggerated way, about using the brain sciences for things like mind reading, and or mind control, often being used in covert ways. So the idea of neuroscience generating greater capability and that such capability is power, and this power is corruptible, I think has fostered somewhat of a creeping paranoia about capricious uses of brain science. What we’re seeing in some of the public polling we’ve been doing over the past years is that in reality, public opinion on this issue is rather binary. There are those in the public who are looking to the brain sciences with an almost utopian sense of anticipation, with hope or even expectation that we are going to cure a host of neurological diseases and psychiatric disorders, and perhaps enable ever expanding capabilities of mental and even emotional capacity, inclusive of moral enhancement. And the other side of this are anxieties about far more dystopian scenarios, as I said, with visions of mind reading , mind control, creation of trans- or post-humans, and tensions if not conflicts arising from brain-machine interfaces, and/or the creation of – and competition with – hybrid or chimeric bio-technical cybernetic creatures.
Of course, as you well know, some of this is derived from, and written about in fiction. And, to be sure, in some cases, there is indeed a thin line between neuroscientific fact and neuroscience fiction, which at times, can be blurred for some of the public. There’s a wonderful discussion we could have about the role of neuroscience fiction, and the neuroethical issues and responsibilities that may be nested in fictional representation. As I’ve said, there are a lot of things that the brain sciences can do, and we’re continuously confronting those things we can’t, both as a challenge and as opportunities for the development of ever newer and more sophisticated tools and techniques.
It’s this horizon of possibility that spawns innovation and imagination. That a variety of drugs can be used to control the brain in differing ways has been and remains enticing. Currently, we’re seeing an increased interest in micro-dosing the psychedelic drugs to evoke mental clarity, focus, and feelings of tranquillity. And ideas of what could be done by putting microelectrodes in people’s brains, or using low level electrical or magnetic currents to control neurological processes and human thought, feeling and actions is provocative, without doubt. You know, Nigel, what happens so often is that as the science progresses, the social aspirations, demands, and concerns also progress. Some of the public pull and push-back is fuelled by the rhetoric of new commercial enterprises in the brain sciences. An example is Elon Musk’s recent venture, Neuralink, which was touted as a means to augment human brains by the use of implantable devices, which would then allow us to maintain an advantage against the (quote) “growing threat of artificial intelligence.”
To again speak to your point, there is percolating public concern about the brain sciences, particularly with regard to dual use. Such concern was of sufficient import to foster a dedicated focus of the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues on the ethical, legal and social issues generated by the 2013 launch of the BRAIN initiative in the United States. This culminated in a two-volume report called Gray Matters, published in 2015. As well, DARPA established a Neuroethics, Legal and Social Issues’ Advisory Panel in 2013, to address those issues, questions and problems arising in projects developed through BRAIN initiative funding. But, let’s not forget that brain science is international, and the efforts of the European Union’s Human Brain Project are equally viable to give rise to neuroethical, legal and social issues. Thus, there is a sub-project working group to specifically address the ethics of ongoing endeavours of the HBP, and in full transparency, I have the honour and pleasure of being a member of that team. Indubitably, public outreach and discourse are crucial to our agenda, as there are, as previously noted, growing public hopes, concerns and outright fears about what we may be able to achieve through the use – and misuse – of brain science. What’s important is to develop and maintain insight to the realities of what the science and technology can and cannot achieve, and at the same time to acknowledge the tendency to render such distinctions fuzzy. Brain science has ability to evoke great good and ability to evoke great burdens, risks and harms. Capability yields power, and power obligates responsibility.
Cameron: Let me invite others who would like to join us to drop an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and then we can bring them to the conversation. Let me ask you, Jim – looking back partly to the Asilomar but partly something I was involved with. I think one of my first experiences in Washington around twenty years ago was a process organized by another think tank, by the Ethics and Public Policy Centre called Neuroscience and the Human Spirit which was led by Frederick Goodwin who just stepped down as the director of the NIMH. The concern there behind that process was the way in which the then public perception of neuroscience was that this was essentially a reductionist, I mean we are having covers on the Time Magazine saying that we now find, you know, the gay neurone or the religious neurone and so on and so forth. And of course related concerns about jurisprudence and the whole notion of actually having accountability and the basis for public morality given this increasingly mechanistic view. And the notion that we would just then of course twenty years ago we were always just at the cusp of a being about to tie everything down. I’d love to have your observations on the reductionist tendency and the fact that in many ways it has just floated away – we don’t see covers of the Time Magazine like that now but we did twenty years ago – as we or course learned a lot more about the complexity of what we’re doing. Does that ring true with you?
Giordano: Yes, it resonates strongly. You’ve raised a good point, and I think it’s important to understand that the majority of researchers working in brain science are attuned to the notion that that brains are embodied within an organism, and organisms are embedded within their environment. The arrows go both ways, so to speak. Neural systems and brains function in relationality. They exist within an organism to allow communication, some basis of relationship between what’s inside that organism and what’s outside. They’re also adaptable and changeable over time. Now, I think that allows for a particular type of reductionistic thought – but not frank reductionism; I tend to impugn a lot of “-isms” in general. What I’m talking about is a theoretically reductionistic approach. For example, we can take human group behaviour and reduce it to individual behaviours. We can take human social behaviour and reduce that to components of psychological functions and behaviour, and in some ways psychological functions can be reduced to components of biology; which can be reduced to components of biochemistry. We can keep going and reveal chemistry that is contributory to biochemistry, and components of physics that are contributory to chemistry, et cetera. We can see an inter-theoretical reductionistic capability that is constituent to the hierarchy of the sciences. But let’s face it, when I’m talking to a loved one, I’m not talking about the physics of my neural membranes nor about what nerve chemicals am I squirting – I’m talking about how I feel. And even if we understand what may be going on at a variety of levels, it’s also important to preserve the fact that this exists on levels of function, and relation.
Much of neuroscience has gone from being something of materialistically reductive to taking a more inter-theoretically reductive approach and putting it into a broader context of systems that are embedded and nested in systems. Taking that approach enables an appreciation for the interaction and inter-dependence of systems at a variety of levels. We’ve come to recognize that brains work as hierarchies of nodes and networks. It’s not so much that a particular site in the brain “does” something, but rather how networks of a brain interact with other nodes and networks, in real time, and with influence from, upon and in interaction with both an organism’s internal and external environment. I’m encouraged because the brain sciences are communicating that the pure reductionism approach really doesn’t obtain, and instead, we really need to take more of a systems-in-systems, relational bio-psychosocial approach.
Cameron: Well, thank you for that. Let’s switch focus a bit now. I think some of us were fascinated – well, I was and I’m sure others were – by your comments about the future, about China, about the trends here. I’d love to hear a bit more about that. I mean, in terms of expense obviously – we’re here in Washington, this is a policy discussion, we have an administration which is looking to slash spending on all sorts of soft subjects like research. Do you know how much time we’re spending? Do you have a sense of the scale of their efforts obviously trending up as things here are likely to be? Is funding likely to go down here for a whole series of different research areas? But I mean, is the fact that they’re coming increasingly to the fore primarily because of increased resourcing or is it simply the fact that they have more maturing university contexts in which some of these questions are much more at their disposal?
Giordano: The answer is yes to both. I think that they go hand in hand and are rather collaborative; not unlike the left hand washing the right hand, and then both hands washing your face, but only once they’ve gotten clean. Both in the prior five-year plan and the proposed current and future five-year plan and plans, are efforts and contingencies toward a much deeper dive into the biosciences and biotechnologies in general, and the basic and translational brain sciences more specifically. Keep in mind that this is a governmental agenda. And I think what’s important to understand is that in a country like China, the relative seamlessness within the triple helix of government, academia and commercial enterprise, allows for a fairly rapid exchange of information, tools and products between those three entities. In this way, the broad infusion of governmental dollars into academic centres enables fast growth in particular areas that are identified to be of high value, economically and with regard to leverageable capability in several domains. As well, the engagement of commercial enterprises that may be able to develop key areas of neuroscientific techniques and technologies under a veil of national intellectual property protection allows international intellectual property protection in a variety of ways. First, it creates a strong crucible effect because it enables both exchange of information, and exchange of capabilities in that allow for articulation of governmentally defined goals and ends. Second, it creates a protective environment to both sustain this crucible effect, and to disseminate its products. China is looking to advance capabilities in the brain sciences through large-scale investment in bioscience and biotechnologies that can be employed both domestically and internationally in a variety of applications. The economic value of this is considerable. There have been estimations that the global neuroscientific and neurotechnological markets are about 175 billion dollars per annum. To some extent, that’s debatable, but generally that represents the market, and the benefit that China is looking to capture. With this investment will come an increased capability, and this will enable an increase in marketability, which will afford Chinese neuroscience and neurotechnology an increased presence – and power – within international markets, and in dual use potential on the world stage within the next five to ten years.
Cameron: Let’s shift the focus a little bit. We could obviously talk for hours and it would be fascinating but we have fifteen minutes left. If anybody wants to join in, you’ve been told you’re welcome to hit an e-mail to email@example.com and we’ll try to bring you in if what you’re saying is going to fit well.
You are somewhat unusual in having a serious long-term commitment in Europe as well as here in the States, which of course I as an ex-European very much appreciate. You mentioned that the brain project, which President Obama launched back in 2013, and of course we have this European brain project. Could you sort of characterize them there, contrast, complementarity, I mean, how do these two stack up against each other as the two main points of focus in brain research in the West.
Giordano: That’s a wonderful question. I think in some ways, the BRAIN initiative in the United States was oriented from its initiation toward rapid and end-focal clinical applications. It was a translational initiative that sought to address key questions about brain structure and function and then take the answers to these questions and make them applicable within defined clinical scenarios. In contrast, the Human Brain Project of the European Union was far more of a basic science initiative, which sought to develop more granular and comprehensive understanding of the structure and function of the brain, to map the brain, and in some cases, create reverse engineering models. As a consequence, the need to create large-scale data-basing computational models, and the idea of big data in the brain sciences became a strong operational agenda within the HBP. And by better understanding the brain, by having better models of brain function, we can then engage those models and understandings, to adapt the tools and techniques we currently possess and perhaps make others anew with which to advance brain research and also, eventually, the use of research fgindings in clinical care.
But there was an important event that occurred a bit more than a year ago, which has since become colloquially referred to as the “signatory of the 700”. There were about 700 European scientists who created a signatory document that stood somewhat in opposition to the trajectory that the Human Brain Project had assumed to date. Their claim was that it was far too basic, that it was an investment of science just for science’s sake, that it really wasn’t serving to improve the human condition, or be translated into the clinical realm. And because of its rather narrow focus and its somewhat more constrained, basic science orientation, the translation of anything that would be seen as an appreciable product or deliverable would be twenty years in the future; and that was seen as being wasteful of resources, time and effort. In this way, the scientists claimed the Human Brain Project at large was essentially a non-justifiable use of the resources at hand, and the request for continuing resources over a five- to ten-year period. That did not fall on deaf ears. In many ways, those scientists looked at the BRAIN initiative, and pointing to its translational focus, as being a more apt engagement of resources and goods. I think that this might be debatable, at least in part, but there was and is a clear message. Namely, that brain science has, and should be engaged to evoke definitive ends within spheres beyond science itself. And so, as a consequence, there has been movement within the Human Brain Project to create more clinically viable and translational applications and directions for many of the research programmes. There was a high level of reflection on where the scientific agendas were aiming and heading, so that now we’re looking at the second phase of the Project, which is referred to as SGA2, which is to be initiated in 2018, and are seeing that many of the studies have more clinically-oriented aspects, as well as components that provide understanding of basic structure and functions of the brain. As well, there are considerations of the potential and possibilities for dual use of the research and its outcomes.
Cameron: Talking a little about leadership. I mean, who is driving this? Obviously, when we had the human genome project, which is the template for great national research projects, at least after man happened anyway. I mean, you know, then we have Jim Watson appointed to do that and then Francis Collins takes it over with a very different style and then we have a competition with entrance on. But who is driving this? Is there really somebody there, of course presently administration is somewhat sixes and sevens in science and technology policy. But I mean, is there an obvious person in place who really is “the one” who is driving this discussion or is it very much a sort of peer advisory-type process and therefore perhaps not quite so clear where it is going to go with a change in government?
Giordano: Well, to my knowledge, there is no “minister of brain sciences”. That doesn’t exist. The Obama administration launched the BRAIN initiative that allocated funding to DARPA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation. In each one of those organisations, there was a primary directorate or directorates responsible for executing projects within the scope of activities of the initiative. In some cases, these fell to discrete institutes, for example within the National Institutes of Health. These were primarily the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Within DARPA, BRAIN initiative activities were executed by the Biotechnologies Office (BTO), which was tasked with developing four principal projects: Systems-based Neurotechnologies for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS); Restoring Active Memory (RAM), a derivative of that project, called RAM Replay, and the Neural Engineering Systems Designs (NESD) project. The National Science Foundation assumed a role of basic science engagement, with a strong emphasis on development of computational systems necessary for collection, aggregation, assimilation and integration of multi-modal information that is vital to a big data approach to brain science and its applications. There is steerage and leadership within each one of those operational silos of articulation within the NIH, within DARPA and the NSF respectively.
The European Union Human Brain Project approach conjoins a number of working groups and sub-projects that are headed by project leaders. This is assumes more of a group aggregate that is working on key projects, and those key projects then convene and orient the entire scope of the Human Brain Project. Axiomatically, and in practice, the Human Brain Project is indeed a European Union project. It is a collaborative project among scientists from different national origins that have discrete activities that are enacted both in national labs and through the cooperation of these labs on key projects. It is cooperative by design and intent. In the United States, the BRAIN initiative was run from 2013 to 2017, and although there is still momentum of those projects, I think it will be interesting to see what happens to the momentum of brain research, particularly those projects that have high translation capacity within the clinical or some other realm, given the federal science budget of the new administration.
Cameron: Well, there is a whole mess of discussion about the way in which budgets of this kind are put together and coordinated and funded. And of course this is a lot more complex at centers here in Washington than it is in Europe where they tend to have well-oiled machines to do these things. And here we have different funding sub-committees and all sorts of other things to worry afterwards. A better parallel here would be that of the national nanotechnology initiative, which was of course launched back in 2000 now, which is rather curious in its initiative role where the project is distributed around. There are about 30 different agencies now and so on, with a national nanotechnology coordinating office, which is the kind of diplomatic office to try to align these people with some sort of goals even without sort of funding control. I assume that’s the sort of better image for how things are now operating.
Giordano: I think the idea of a centralized office is a great construct of how things should operate. One of the most positive administrative attributes of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, was that it did just that: It created something of a centralized resource that could oversee executable tasks throughout all the phases of the project. The National Nanotech Initiative was something we looked at very strongly as an example, when trying to develop a national neurotechnology initiative.
Cameron: Well, I was using the word “NELSI” for “nano-ELSI” twelve years ago. So, there you go.
Giordano: Well, I must give you a nod of thanks for that. It was funny, when we first had thrown out the term NELSI a few years ago, we thought it was perfectly viable. We gave you nod, but a colleague of mine, Hank Greely, a professor of law at Stanford, thought it was a bit of a “clunky” term. Do you think of it as clunky at all? It’s been used in the past, and ultimately NELSI – Neuroethical, legal and social issues, gained traction, and that’s given both Hank and I a chuckle. But it was a wonderful term, Nigel, because it allowed a quick and easy moniker with which to discuss the ethical, legal and social issues fostered by the science and technology that are represented by the prefix, whether nano or neuro. And, as you know, both nano and neuro science give rise to some of the same peculiarities – namely just as we’re really not certain what goes on at the nano scale, we’re confronted by unknowns about the brain, vis-à-vis, Chalmers ‘hard problems and questions”. These issues, questions and problems aren’t mere navel gazing. I think that understanding the nuances of the prefix, in this case “neuro” allows you to ground consideration of ethical, legal and social issues to what we know, what we don’t know, what we can do, what we cannot do, and what does that mean for the conduct of the science and its uses in practice.
We’ve called for no new neuroscience without neuroethics, and certainly no new neuroethics without a reasonable reliance upon realistic neuroscience. Neuroethical projects should look upon issues, questions and problems that are and/or likely to be generated by neuroscience that is being conducted and planned. I’m encouraged because just recently, there was a large-scale National Institutes of Health request for proposals for neuroethical analyses of key projects developed by the NIH under the BRAIN Initiative. And that’s also the operational stance of the Human Brain Project in Europe: The ethics analyses query what various groups are doing to assess, define and address the ethical, legal and social issues arising in and from those projects. So I think there is real movement in positive directions toward establishing a solid base of neuroethical discourse, address and guidance. But I’ll tamper that a bit because as you know, here in the United States, the current posture is toward budgetary restriction in the sciences. And what I find equally disturbing are cuts in the National Endowment of the Humanities budget that could negatively impact focus on key projects in ethics.
Cameron: Well, of course, in the Human Genome Project, it was originally three percent at Jim Watson’s and then five percent of the money specifically went to the ELSI agenda in the NNI, there was no specific allocation of how much. And the problem with soft funds is that they are the most difficult ones to sustain. Okay, so just a final question on what may be a lighter note or not. But Eli Musk and his Neuralink brain hack, let’s just leave aside this hyperloop and all the other things and extraordinary matters he’s coming up with. I mean, in five to ten years’ time looking ahead – just reflect upon that sort of thing…
Giordano Closing Remarks: I’ll note that Elon Musk is certainly not the first to propose such a thing. A more realistic approach has been generated by DARPA. This is the Neural Engineering Systems Design (NESD) project approach. The idea is to create implantable sensors and transmitters that are placed upon the cortical surface and perhaps more deeply into the brain, which can reach into the noise floor of the brain to extract signals far more effectively. From that, we’d be able to learn about the brain in greater detail, and also allow information transfer to and from the brain with relatively high fidelity. So the idea that Elon Musk is putting forth has been one that has been in iterative development for a while. Elon Musk is saying that this technology is poised to spill out of the clinical silo and be utilized in the public sphere. I call for a reflective pause, and a reality check there. I mean, the implantation of sensors and transmitters involves neurosurgery. Musk’s conceptualization would mean that neurosurgery would be broadly employed, and easily accessible. We’re just not there. Even the DARPA programme, which is oriented toward a 60 month execution for the development of a technology or technique set, acknowledges the futuristic vision of broad scale application, and envisions a 20- to 30-year time span for wider, more public application.
Even if we presume that some form of neurosurgical intervention would be more easily provided, there are still a host of ethico-legal and social issued that are spawned and need to be addressed and resolved. For example, who’s going to get the goodies, what is it going to cost, who is going to support this, is there going to be continuative clinical care if and when things go wrong? And at this point, all those questions represent what I would call second and third order questions. I think the important thing right now is if such a technology can be developed, then once we do that, where is it going to go? One of the things that our group has been working to do is the development of risk assessment and mitigation approach that asks key questions and then frames these questions – and answers – within key contexts to enable more granular ethico-legal and social analysis. This is still very much a work in progress.
Cameron Closing Remarks: Well, what a perfect way to stop – well, to finish. Well, thank you so much. It has been terrific. Were we in a room, we would now of course all be applauding you, this is not the convention on the telephone, especially not when everyone is muted. It’s just been terrific. Thank you very much.
Just before we conclude, I do want to thank my colleagues, Adam Turosky and Hanna Reed, who help set up these things, and also our research fellow Anna Kling, who actually will be transcribing and working on the report coming out of this, which we hope we will be able to distribute in due course. Well thank you, this has been a terrific hour and thank you everybody for joining us. We’re really very grateful. Thank you.
Giordano: Nigel – thank you, it was a pleasure. Cheers!
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