Royal Society report highlights the benefits and risks of neural interface technologies

September 11, 2019

The Royal Society has published a report on neural interfaces saying that neural interface technologies will deliver wide-ranging benefits. However, they raise profound ethical, political, social and commercial questions. The report says that both the opportunities and risks should be addressed as soon as possible to create mechanisms to encourage, approve or regulate the technologies as appropriate, while managing the impact they have on society.

Neural interfaces are devices that interact with the nervous system of an individual. They are electronic devices placed on the outside or inside of the brain, nerves or other components of the central and peripheral nervous system to record or stimulate activity – or both. Examples of their application include helping Parkinson’s patients and electronic foot simulators to promote stroke recovery. There is scope for wider applications in future, for example with Alzheimer’s patients or augmentation of human memory, concentration and learning.

Neural interface technologies are in their infancy, comparable to computers in the 1970s – but they are now experiencing a wave of innovation and investment that will lead to smaller, more powerful and more widely used devices. Neural technologies offer unimaginable benefits but also risks and ethical issues. Structures and systems need to be built to realise the opportunities and manage the risks.

The report covers the two interlinked challenges of realising the opportunities offered, while managing the risks. To do this the Royal Society says that the UK should use neural interfaces as a test case for an ambitious, democratised and anticipatory approach to promoting emerging technologies. This joined-up approach would seek to stimulate innovation in the field, while constructing responsible regulation around the technology as it develops. To do this, it recommends the following actions are taken:

  • The UK develop a ‘Neural Interface Ecosystem’ to accelerate the development of the technologies in the UK and encourage multidisciplinary collaboration across industries.
  • An ‘early and often’ approach to addressing the ethical considerations of the field.
  • The UK trial new approaches to technology regulation on neural interface technologies. These could include the use of regulatory ‘sandboxes’ and new ways of gathering evidence about the efficacy of medical devices.
  • The general public be given a clear voice in shaping the future of neural interface regulation. Furthermore, the processes of consultation, regulation and policy choices be designed so that the public’s voice has an impact on them. This should include a key role for public consultation in developing regulatory frameworks and public representation on relevant advisory board.

The report says that the UK has a unique set of strengths that mean it is well positioned to become a world leader in neural interfaces:

  • Academic excellence in relevant disciplines, from neuroscience to electrical engineering.
  • Supportive regulation – with an internationally renowned regulatory system that is taking a new approach to accelerate responsible innovation in emerging technology.
  • The NHS – providing a unified national platform for research, innovation and commercialisation
  • Competitive advantage provided by a dynamic life sciences sector and thriving creative industries, of which gaming is a big part. 

Taken together, these factors provide a clear technological pathway for the development of neural interfaces in the UK that builds on existing strengths. Looking forward, investment in neural interfaces could be an important avenue for the UK to explore as it considers how to meet its commitment to devote 2.4% of GDP to research and development by 2027.