“Mind-reading” used to be a figure of speech. The brain was the inner sanctum of privacy, agency, and autonomy. Telepathy existed only in fiction. But not anymore. The dawning epoch of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) has researchers calling for “Brave new rights for a brave new world.”1 With the integrity of our minds—if not the core aspects of our humanity—in the balance, everyday Christians need to carefully consider how to navigate the ethical world of BCIs.
With the integrity of our minds—if not the core aspects of our humanity—in the balance, everyday Christians need to carefully consider how to navigate the ethical world of BCIs.
Let’s investigate what BCIs entail, how these technologies are being pursued, and how a biblical worldview can inform our thinking about them. From this foundation of God’s Word, we can then identify key questions that will help guide a biblical, informed response to BCI technologies as they emerge.
For starters, we must understand the technology itself. BCIs are systems where a machine records an organism’s neural activity as input for a computer program—or vice versa, where a computer inputs signals directly into a brain. BCI devices may be invasive, requiring surgical implants, or non-invasive, touching only the scalp. Either way, BCIs grant unprecedented access to brains in ways which pack incredible potential both for benefit and peril.
Medically, the benefits are astounding. BCIs let paralyzed individuals accomplish anything from controlling computers to maneuvering wheelchairs to manipulating prostheses, simply by thinking.2 Powers of vision,3 hearing,4 communication,5 and mobility can be restored. Seniors may attain more independent living by tackling physically difficult tasks with their minds.6
Then again, many BCIs have nothing to do with medicine. Whether gamers neurologically interacting with virtual worlds,7 soldiers mentally piloting drones,8 or families mind-controlling “smart” appliances in their homes,9 countless BCI applications reach far beyond the therapeutic. Even simple entertainment may incorporate BCIs, such as headphones which select songs according to users’ mental states.10
But why stop with linking brains to machines? BCI technology also enables brain-to-brain interfaces (BTBIs). In an early demonstration, one person’s thinking triggered another person’s hand movement.11 Humans can already link brains to communicate, collaborate, and problem-solve wordlessly.12 BTBIs can even cross species boundaries, allowing researchers to mentally move the tail of a rat,13 guide rodents through mazes,14 and control cockroach locomotion.15 In the words of one research team, “With the technology of BMI,16 animals’ locomotion behavior can be precisely controlled as robots.”17 BTBIs may also someday feed mental information from animals to humans, for instance, by allowing first responders to connect their brains with a dog’s sense of smell.18
With a little genetic engineering, even more precise control over individual neurons is possible, thanks to a BCI technology called optogenetics. Optogenetics uses a gene editing system such as CRISPR-Cas 9 to make specific neurons express a light-sensitive protein, so that those neurons can be activated (or silenced) on demand when hit with certain colors of light.19 Through optogenetics, the non-profit engineering firm Draper transformed live dragonflies into remote-controllable “drones” capable of surveillance.20 While optogenetics could be used to treat a wide range of human neurological illnesses, it also raises multiple ethical questions.21
Optogenetics further enables extremely detailed mapping of the brain, which again poses incredible potential both for better and for worse.22 On the bright side, knowing how individual neurons work in the human brain would unlock an enormous knowledge base for treating neural diseases. On a darker note, such knowledge would also unlock the potential for monitoring, mining, and manipulating brains like never before.23 As neuroscientist Rafael Yuste of Columbia University remarked about his research with freshwater invertebrates known as hydras,
In a way, you could argue that we’re trying to read the hydra’s mind because we can measure the activity of every neuron in [a] hydra while the hydra is behaving. . . . Can we input thoughts into a hydra; can we write the patterns of activity and change the behavior of the animal? We’re trying to do this in hydra[s] and we’re trying to do this in mice. We can imagine that you could do this with humans in the future.24,25
Given the incredible prospects in reach, the dark side of brain-mapping and BCIs hasn’t deterred major stakeholders from pursuing these technologies—hard. In 2013, for instance, the US government launched the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative,26 which involves “accelerating the development and application of innovative technologies” associated with “revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain.”27,28 Then in 2016, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced their Neural Engineering Design System program, which “aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world.”29 The same year, Elon Musk and cofounders unveiled their corporation, Neuralink. According to Neuralink’s website,
We’re aiming to design a fully implantable, cosmetically invisible brain-computer interface to let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go. Micron-scale threads would be inserted into areas of the brain that control movement. Each thread contains many electrodes and connects them to an implant called the “Link.”30
Given that the implant can apparently not only record neural activity, but also directly stimulate31 the brain via 1024 electrodes, it would not necessarily be propagandistic to compare the device’s threads to over a thousand potential puppet strings attached to individual neural regions. In fairness, the website says, “Neuralink is currently focused on developing medical devices.” 32 But the paragraph continues,
We expect that as our devices continue to scale, and as we learn to communicate with more areas of the brain, we will discover new, non-medical applications for our BCIs. Neuralink’s long-term vision is to create BCIs that are sufficiently safe and powerful that the general population would want to have them.33
Neuralink isn’t alone in pursuing non-medical BCIs for the general public. Social media corporations, for instance, have been increasingly investing in BCI technologies as preparation for the “metaverse”34—the sphere of virtual and augmented reality which, according to the social media company Meta, “will transform the way we live, work, and play.”35 Meanwhile, entrepreneur Bryan Johnson invested $100M to launch a BCI development corporation named Kernel, stating, “In building Kernel, my objective is to radically improve humans in every imaginable and unimaginable way.”36
All these initiatives are part of the larger transformation which Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum (WEF) calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution, commenting, “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”37 Presumably referring to such changes, WEF conference speaker Professor Yuval Noah Harari—who has authored a book claiming that technology will eventually make humans “like God”38—commented in a videotaped interview,
The big story of our era is the ability to hack human beings. And by this, I mean that, if you have enough data and you have enough computing power, you can understand people better than they understand themselves. And then you can manipulate them in ways which were previously impossible. And in such a situation the old democratic system stop[s] functioning. We need to reinvent democracy for this new era in which humans are now hackable animals.39 You know the whole idea that humans have this soul or spirit, and they have free will . . . that’s over.40
As intimidating as these statements may sound, God’s Word assures us they’re not entirely true. For starters, the reality that humans’ material brains can now potentially be externally controlled is irrelevant to the question of whether humans possess immaterial souls. Even more important is the fact that our loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God has—and always will have—total free will, total control, and total sovereignty. As the history of Babel in Genesis 11 reminds us, God does not allow humanity’s ambitious schemes to flourish apart from his purposes. Meanwhile, civilization will not benefit from Christians reacting to the prospects of technological revolution with panic, fear, and unsubstantiated rumor mongering41 rather than responding with “power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). Enacting this proper response requires starting from the proper foundation: God’s Word.
How can Christians respond to BCIs from the foundation of Scripture? While the Bible doesn’t talk about modern technologies directly, a biblical worldview does provide clear paradigms and principles to guide our thinking about BCIs.
While the Bible doesn’t talk about modern technologies directly, a biblical worldview does provide clear paradigms and principles to guide our thinking about BCIs.
For starters, Genesis affirms that God created us in his image, distinguishing us from animals and enabling us to relate with God and with each other in a unique way. Many of the capacities that express our nature as image-bearers—including our faculties for knowledge, logic, self-awareness, language, emotions, and relationships—are associated with the immaterial, immortal elements of ourselves.42 They’re aspects of the “inner persons” who make us, us. These immaterial traits transcend our material brains. Yet, reflecting another biblical principle that God created humans as embodied beings, many expressions of our non-physical aspects correlate to physical processes that happen in our brains.
In other words, while we are in our earthly bodies, our brains provide the physical scaffolding for many of the activities which reflect our spiritual nature as image-bearers.43 Nothing that happens to our brains can change our image-bearing nature; physical events can only affect our earthly ability to express certain capacities associated with this nature. Even so, the fact that God provided our brains as material scaffolds for expressing our immaterial nature suggests that the human brain occupies a place of sanctity, deserving extreme respect and care. We must therefore exercise profound responsibility when dealing with technologies that may directly involve—or interfere with—the brain.
Genesis reveals that one way we’re called to express our faculties as image-bearers is to care for creation, which God placed under human dominion (Genesis 1:28 and 2:5–15). While exercising this dominion, we can apply our creativity as image-bearers to develop thoughtful technologies—an action made possible because God created an orderly universe conducive to scientific inquiry. However, the first chapters of Genesis also remind us that this orderly universe features distinct boundaries. These include boundaries between humans and animals, between life and non-life, and between different kinds of living things—boundaries which reveal that we are not evolving, nor were we meant to “evolve,” into something other than humans. But the ultimate boundary exists between creature and Creator. We are not God. For all these reasons, we must not apply our God-given creativity in ways that may overstep proper dominion of God’s orderly creation—and certainly not with intentions of trying to make ourselves “like God.”
Even so, humans have sought to “be like God” since Eden (Genesis 3:5), rebelling against God’s authority as Creator. This original rebellion corrupted physical creation, resulting in a fallen world filled with suffering, sickness, and death. In this fallen world, we are called to “bear one another’s burdens” in love (Galatians 6:2). Biblical teachings to care for the needy grant us precedent to apply our creativity to develop technology that can help ease others’ suffering. But along the way, we must also apply wisdom, knowing that fallen humans are thoroughly corrupted (Romans 3:9–23). Because of our fallen nature, we can anticipate that—especially without careful guidelines, boundaries, and safeguards—technology that can be used for great good may also be used for great evil.
This biblical foundation provides us with principles for thinking about every new application of BCI technology. For instance, given their potential to help ease the effects of our fallen planet, BCIs’ medical applications seem overwhelmingly positive. However, we should seriously question whether other applications of BCIs outweigh the benefits. Here are just five such questions to ask in preparation for the world of BCIs:
In a sense, every BCI involves human enhancement. Humans aren’t naturally mind-reading beings who communicate telepathically, hack into other species’ nervous systems, and control items via disembodied thoughts. Some might argue that such actions are no different than using tools—such as microscopes, smart phones, or airplanes—as extensions of our bodies. But our bodies still provide an intermediate agent between brain and tool, thought and action, mind and message. In bypassing embodiment, or in combining our embodied senses with those of other species, do BCIs violate a core element of being human?
Another core aspect of humanity is relationality.44 By enabling more direct access to others’ thoughts, emotions, memories, and even muscles, BCIs alter the landscape of human interaction. Imagine attending a class where mental state monitoring meant you couldn’t conceal your irritation with a classmate’s audible snack-crunching any more than they could conceal the fact that they think you’re cute. The social dilemmas might never cease.45
On a broader scale, we may also need to consider whether the enhancement potential of BCIs could lead to separate “castes” of humans—those with unbelievable technological abilities, and those without them.46 What consequences might result from this kind of scenario, where some people may be considered less biotechnologically “evolved” than others? How could we protect against such consequences?
Unfortunately, the landscape of BCIs can quickly change from socially strenuous to downright sinister. Multiple researchers, for instance, have voiced concerns about “neural security,”47 especially since neurological data can reveal sensitive information like banking details.48 In the age of big tech, apprehensions about privacy, surveillance, and targeted marketing already prevail without corporations needing access to users’ neurological data. Relatedly, abusive parents, partners, caregivers, bosses, and governments cause enough destruction without abusers being able to directly monitor—or potentially manipulate—victims’ mental states.
The fact that BCIs could allow governments, corporations, and other stakeholders such intimate access to brains poses further questions for freedom. Today’s “cancel culture” raises enough concerns for freedom of speech without BCIs also enabling attacks on freedom of thought. BCIs simultaneously heighten the stakes associated with “thought crimes,” because the more everyday items become connected to a BCI-enabled “internet of things,” the more basic necessities become privileges that can be monitored, limited, subjected to changeable “terms and conditions,” or “canceled.”49 And if human bodies could potentially be controlled like rat tails, certain types of BCIs also raise questions for free will, autonomy, and responsible agency.50
Compounding these risks is humans’ track record of trading freedom and privacy for convenience and entertainment. Worse still is humanity’s moral record. While some researchers have raised concerns about BCIs malfunctioning,51 rogue technology is only a possibility. Humanity’s sinful nature means that rogue people are a guarantee. And Scripture predicts that humans will only become more visibly evil, more deceptive, and more distant from God as history advances.52 We don’t need digitally enhanced brains to recognize that decreasing mortality plus increasing technology make for a precarious equation.
Even when technology consisted of hammers and nails, the Romans engineered crosses. But the Romans, with their many false deities, arguably had a stronger moral foundation than today’s Western culture, which popularly denies objective morality. With such a tenuous foundation for ethics, is now a wise time to introduce powerful technology for tampering with the organ of ethical reasoning?
Ultimately, we cannot afford to let BCIs revolutionize humanity without a second thought. As consumers, voters, parents, pastors, educators, business-owners, neighbors, friends, and praying disciples, we have plenty of opportunities for influence in the matter. Given the potential stakes for better or worse, now is the time to prepare our responses to BCIs from an informed biblical perspective.
From this perspective, therapeutic applications that are not possible or effective without BCIs currently appear the most justifiable. But, considering the ethical questions involved, it’s far harder to show that the benefits of many BCIs outweigh the risks for widescale application in consumerism, recreation, and entertainment.
We can pick our own music. We can turn lights on manually. We can forgo telepathy and type messages into apps—or better yet, talk to neighbors in person. But without extremely strong justification, we must not hand over the keys to humanity’s final fortress of privacy, the (literal) headquarters of consent, autonomy, decision-making, logic, curiosity, creativity, and competence.
Then, in an age where “mind-reading” is no longer a figure of speech, we can say yes to applications of BCIs which restore human flourishing, while calling for caution against applications which could undermine humanity.
Instead, we must apply our brains to defend their own integrity: to ask careful questions, to exercise biblical wisdom regarding each application of BCI technology, and to contend for everything that makes us human. Then, in an age where “mind-reading” is no longer a figure of speech, we can say yes to applications of BCIs which restore human flourishing, while calling for caution against applications which could undermine humanity.