by Iciar Iturmendi-Sabater
Graphic design by Anais Lupu
If you pick up a novel written in the second half of the 20th century by a South American author, you are likely to find a character able to fly. One Hundred Years of Solitude1 or The House of the Spirits2 are prime examples of magical realism, a literature genre where real world accounts are tinted with a magical undercurrent of fantasy.
In The House of the Spirits, Isabell Allende narrates the story of a Chilean family throughout the 20th century. The family is faced with the repressive power of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. As if to make the series of tragical historical events more emotionally digestible, she endows her characters with the ability to read minds, move objects by will, and even fly.
Isabel Allende gave wings to her first characters during exile. 9/11 had become a date to remember for Chileans long before 2001. In 1973, a coup d’état led by the military on September 11th bombed the president’s palace in the capital, Santiago. The democratically elected president, Salvador Allende—Isabel Allende’s uncle— was killed. His socialist government was violently dismissed, and Augusto Pinochet raised to power. Chile remained under his military right-wing dictatorship until 1990, during which time Isabel Allende wrote her fears away.
Neurorights arrive in Chile
Less than 25 years have passed since Chile’s return to democracy, yet the South American country is leading a pioneering effort in defending human rights, becoming the first nation to contemplate Neurorights in their constitution. Neurorights aim to provide a new international legal framework for the protection of brain activity underpinning our unique identity and decision-making abilities.
In October 2020, Chileans voted in favour of rewriting their constitution, which dated back to Pinochet’s era. Less than a year later, Chilean lawmakers approved a law protecting personal identity, privacy, and free will:
“Scientific and technological development will be at the service of people and will be carried out with respect for life and physical and mental integrity. The law will regulate the requirements, conditions and restrictions for its use in people, especially protecting brain activity, as well as the information coming from it.”3
I can’t help but think that unconsciously, Chile has pioneered the introduction of Neurorights to their new constitution in an effort to protect the creativity and independence of thought that inspired The House of the Spirits. That is, to watch over the magical realism that has facilitated healing during and after Pinochet’s dictatorship, giving value to individual stories.
The goal is that one day, Neurorights are not only present in independent countries’ constitutions, but also reach international human rights instruments, including the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
What could Neurorights prevent?
Through the integration of ethics, law, and neuroscience, Neurorights target four areas of concern that are not yet protected by existing medical and technological ethics guidelines—the Declaration of Helsinki (1964), the Belmont Report (1979), or the Asilomar Artificial Intelligence Statement of cautionary principles (2017). The concerns are privacy and consent, agency and identity, augmentation, and bias. 4,5
Looking back on the past century of Chilean history, one can find examples of human rights that should be protected if history were to repeat itself in the Age of Neurotechnology.
An estimated minimum of 27,200 persons were tortured during Pinochet’s dictatorship, and a total of 38,000 imprisoned for political reasons. One wonders how the chronic state of fear that dominated the country then could have been reinforced if suspects had been traced through smart phone and computer activity−a fear felt in countries currently under war and political repression. Consider how torture strategies could be enhanced by accessing one’s mental states through technological devices, violating one’s fundamental right to mental privacy.
Rafael Yuste, professor of Biology at Columbia University and co-founder of the Neurorights Foundation, has warned that in just about 20 years, everyone will have brain implants, ending the smart phone era by eliminating screens as the interface between the technological device and person.6 The link between them could be established directly. Without needing to type or dictate one’s questions to Siri, Siri would already know what we are thinking by reading our thoughts.
This takes us to the next concern: to what extent can neurotechnology blur our sense of self, agency, and identity?
About 12.8% of Chile’s population are Indigenous peoples (over 2 million). All suffered under Pinochet’s rule when it was forbidden to speak a native language other than Spanish, and Indigenous natural resources were sold to and exploited by big international corporations. Chile’s economy arguably grew at the expense of Indigenous peoples. 7
Pinochet’s government aimed at erasing Indigenous identity. If in the future a repressive government had the power to control individual thoughts and feelings through neurotechnology, could cultural diversity and individual identities disappear? The process could be sped up by controlling people’s thoughts at the press of a button through brain-computer interfaces, such as the brain implants Rafael Yuste is warning about.
Augmentation and Bias
In this Orwellian reality, enhancing neurotechnologies could further be used to benefit those in power, calling on Neurorights’ third concern: augmentation. Neurorights’ concern with augmentation argues that neurotechnology could exclusively benefit the rich if not regulated.
In 2019, Chileans took to the streets to protest the economic inequalities that have persisted in the country since Pinochet’s era, drawing international attention. Although in 2019 Chile was significantly wealthier than its neighbours, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, the difference between the richest 10% and poorest 10% of the population was the second highest in Latin America, only behind Mexico.8 Levels of economic inequality had remained intact for over a decade,8 leaving Chileans frustrated and thirsty for change.
I believe this frustration could be reinforced if neurotechnology was only accessible to the richest 10% of Chileans. Imagine the impact of OpenAI’s ChatGPT becoming a paid service,9 like Netflix; richer university applicants, for example, could gain advantaged access to write their motivation letters with the help of artificial intelligence.
The last concern of Neurorights, bias, precisely refers to the capacity of neurotechnologies of perpetuating and reinforcing inequalities. Neurorights will ensure bridges are laid between these extremes.
Yet from my perspective, Neurorights are not only essential to prevent the potential horrors if neurotechnology was leveraged by future repressive powers. Neurorights can also ensure future generations can use their voices to narrate their times from their own subjective perspective despite the rise of neurotechnology, perhaps resorting to magical realism like Isabel Allende did.