Are Neurotechnology Tools Designed Ethically? Public Is Skeptical
Designing new neurotechnology tools poses many ethical challenges — agency, privacy, equality, normality, and justice among them. “Ethics in the development of neurotech is a core priority for us,” says Scott Ransom, PhD, director of industry and innovation at the University of Washington Center for Neurotechnology.
At the center, neuroethicists are embedded into the labs alongside neurotechnology researchers. To Ransom, it was clear industry members highly valued ethics. Industry members also tended to believe society would embrace new technologies with confidence because of assurances that the industry developers had infused ethics into the design. Here, Ransom saw somewhat of a disconnect. “In talking with regulators and laypeople, it was clear that they did not share that assumption,” Ransom explains.
People did not see medical device companies as nefarious or operating with ill intent; rather, many viewed the companies as revenue-generating entities that would not necessarily prioritize ethics in their design choices. Ransom and colleagues wanted to quantify this gap in attitudes between what the neural device industry thought about how seriously they took ethics and what the public thought about it. They surveyed 66 industry professionals and 1,088 members of the public.1
The industry professionals were highly confident that neural devices would be designed in a way that addressed ethical issues. The public was not as confident.
“We confirmed there was a gap in priorities related to privacy and consent between members of industry and the general public,” Ransom reports.
Both groups agreed there was a need for guiding ethical principles in development of neurotechnology. The groups differed somewhat in terms of confidence in the industry to incorporate ethical concerns in the design process. The public was much more likely to believe consent should be required for companies to collect brain data vs. industry responders. “This gap between what industry felt their level of neuroethics investment was and what the public in general saw it to be could have impacts to the adoption of tech,” Ransom says.
People might not trust newly developed devices if they lack confidence in ethical design. “These days, the definition of who is a medical device ‘customer’ is more complicated than ever,” Ransom adds. “Consumer choice extends to doctors. They often are the ones making the purchase decision for the patient based on patient need.”
Hospitals and third-party payors that purchase these devices want to know they can trust how data from devices are used. “Lack of confidence by all of these ‘consumers’ hinders market adoption and, ultimately, reduces the number of people the devices help,” Ransom says.
For industry members, the study’s findings show they cannot just assume people trust them to design devices ethically. “There’s a need to be more intentional about how they incorporate neuroethics in the design process,” Ransom says.
Marketing campaigns and advertisements are one way industry can spread the message. “But even more fundamental is incorporating patient and end user feedback in the design process,” Ransom says.
Regularly meeting with patients, physicians, and regulators and developing a deep understanding of their needs and concerns is the best path forward. The Ransom and colleagues analysis revealed evidence indicating industry members respond to public opinion. Industry professionals prioritized user privacy beginning in 2018. Ransom and colleagues attributed this to a highly publicized scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.2
“The findings have important implications for industry professionals tasked with designing and disseminating new neural devices,” Ransom argues.
For patients, physicians, and regulators to fully adopt new neurotechnology devices, it must be clear that neuroethical considerations were a part of the design and development process. Also, patient concerns must be addressed in the design process.
“It’s not enough for industry to do this internally,” Ransom says. “There needs to be a level of transparency — and, in fact, collaboration — with the public in setting neuroethics standards.”
- MacDuffie KE, Ransom S, Klein E. Neuroethics inside and out: A comparative survey of neural device industry representatives and the general public on ethical issues and principles in neurotechnology. AJOB Neurosci 2022;13:44-54.
- Schneble CO, Elger BS, Shaw D. The Cambridge Analytica affair and internet-mediated research. EMBO Rep 2018;19:e46579.
Industry members cannot just assume people trust them to design devices ethically. Marketing campaigns and advertisements are one way to spread the message. But even more fundamental is incorporating patient and end user feedback in the design process.
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