Nita Farahany traveled to Penn last Friday to talk law and ethics as they pertain to neuroscience and business. The Duke University professor of law and philosophy was joined by her colleague John Pearson, a research professor at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.
Fascinating and forward-thinking, in two separate presentations, they detailed decision-making surveys and studies they have recently worked on, setting the stage for an engaging panel discussion that included Penn professors Stephen Morse, from Penn Law School, and Martha Farah, from the Department of Psychology, as well as moderator Diana Robertson, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School.
Merging such diverse scholars for a conversation, and sometimes debate, was the goal of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative’s second annual summit. Throughout the rest of the day, the conference’s nearly 150 attendees also listened in on sessions concerning marketing, consumer choice, and social impact; moral judgment, decision-making, and regulations; neurotechnology, embodied augmentation, and machine learning; and data science and societal implications. Speakers included others from Penn and Duke, as well as Jan Trzaskowski from Copenhagen Business School, Carl Marci from Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, and Josh Duyan, a Penn alumnus and chief strategy officer at CTRL-labs.
“We’re at this incredible moment where there’s the promise of technology, but a lot of really deep and troubling issues, and I don’t think there’s a real road map,” said Michael Platt, the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative’s director, in his opening remarks. “The purpose of today is to bring together people from a variety of different backgrounds who have thought hard about issues related to privacy and autonomy, but also opportunity.”
For instance, Farahany, a leading scholar on the ethical, legal, and social implications of biosciences and emerging technologies, particularly those related to neuroscience and behavioral genetics, discussed EEG devices, sometimes called “brain wearables,” that detect brain wave activity. The information that can be aggregated—such as tracking sleep patterns, alertness, or wakefulness—can be fascinating, and even life-saving. Believed to help improve distracted minds, some users have included drivers, athletes, and factory workers.
Recognizing that a lot of the research being conducted on EEG devices is for marketing purposes, Farahany said they can be “quite useful at being able to predict and tell how a person will behave.”
Platt posed the question: “What does the neuroscience add? That’s been the million-dollar question.”
“At least in terms of marketing,” Platt continued, “[with these devices] you can gain a 10 to 20 percent advantage in prediction above and beyond what people say they like, how much they will pay, et cetera. That is showing us there is something inside the brain, some kind of private data people can’t verbalize, that they are unaware of, that can be used to make that prediction.”
In that vein, Morse, who serves as associate director of Penn’s Center for Neuroscience and Society, noted that it is not necessary to have a theoretical understanding of the brain and mind connection.
“You just need big enough data,” he said.
As a statistician, brain data is what Pearson, from Duke, focuses on most.
“We have had EEG for 60 years and the limitations of that as a signal are pretty well understood. We look at what’s changed: We have cheaper sensors, and we have much better algorithms,” he said. “It’s not that we have better brain technologies, most of those devices are being driven by improvements in what we do with the data that are coming in.”
Trying to predict choices and behavior has always been key for marketers, but improving the way it is done sometimes causes fear for many who worry about manipulation.
But Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist who works on problems at the interface of neuroscience and society, said, “We should not justify our work in neuroethics or neurolaw with this kind of hyperventilating, this [understanding that it] is unprecedented to judge someone by what’s going on in their skull.”
Instead, she said, “We should be paying attention to the disruptions of life, of customs, of potentially the legal system, that will almost certainly ensue from the new tools that neuroscience has given us.”
What is being seen today is new neuroscience with old problems, noted Morse.
When it comes to neuroscience and privacy, he explained, “Neuroscience may present new fodder for our ethical thinking, but the ethical tools needed to solve it are already at hand … Neuroscience is not calling on us yet to create any new paradigm when thinking about the ethical issues.”
Referencing Farahany’s study, which tested how people feel about various sorts of privacy, “gives us positive information,” said Morse. “But sometimes people think the [strangest] things. And one of the most interesting questions, of course, is ‘What should be our normative stance toward these issues, even if lots of people feel a certain way?’”
Whether it’s legitimate or not, there is work that needs to be done to determine the ways in which people are concerned about misuse. Farahany asked: “How do we enable this technology to progress in a way that people are comfortable with?”
It’s real-world questions like this that the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative has been routinely trying to address since its launch in the fall of 2016.
Talking after the summit, Platt dubbed it a “huge success.”
“The speakers were outstanding, and the topics timely and thought-provoking,” he said. “The audience was engaged and participatory. It’s exactly what we wanted out of a summit.”