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Interview with Dr. James Giordano

As we welcome Dr. James Giordano to our network of C-PET Senior Fellows, I took the opportunity to pose him a series of questions about neuroscience and its applications and implications. His wide-ranging replies (with notes attached for those who wish to read further) are pasted below and offer a striking series of insights into some of the most exciting – and consequent – science of the 21st century.

Dr. Nigel Cameron: President and CEO


NC Jim, we’re delighted to have you as part of our C-PET network!
Your bio spans quite a range of “neuro” issues – from basic research, to ethics, to defense applications, and more. Can you introduce yourself a little, and talk about how you see your various responsibilities fitting together?

JG Thanks, Nigel; it’s an honor and pleasure to be part of the C-PET network. A bit of background. I am a neuroscientist and have worked primarily at the interface of basic to translational research, studying molecular and biochemical mechanisms involved in a variety of neuro-psychiatric states and conditions. My training is in neuropharmacology, neurotoxicology and neuropathology, and so rather early on in my career I began investigating how various drugs, chemicals and toxins could be employed experimentally as probes, clinically to affect disease states, and of course, in dual-use agendas.

I also have an educational background in philosophy of science and bioethics, and I’ve put that to work, so to speak, in both basic and clinical research by serving on institutional review boards, data monitoring and human subject protection committees, and the like.
Over the past 30 years, my career has allowed me to collaborate with a number of groups, both domestically and abroad, to address and engage the ways that brain science and its technologies are being employed in various settings, ranging from global health, to public use, to security and defense applications.

In this latter regard, I’ve had the pleasure as serving as a Senior Science Advisory Fellow to the Strategic Multilayer Assessment branch of the Joint Staff of the Pentagon, working to assess how neural and cognitive science might be utilized for intelligence and military purposes, both by the United States and its allies, as well as in various risk and threat scenarios. As well, I’ve had the honor of serving as an appointed member of the Neuroethics, Legal and Social Issues Advisory Panel of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), working to address ethico-legal and policy issues generated by research and clinical uses of cutting edged neurotechnological developments, such as state-of-the art forms of brain stimulation devices and neuroprostheses.

Currently, I serve as an appointed member of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary’s Advisory Council on Human Research Protections; and as a Task Leader and Research Fellow on the European Union’s Human Brain Project Ethics and Philosophy Sub-Program Working Group. The common thread in each and all of these prior and current enterprises is the sharp focus upon the actual capabilities and limitations of existing and newly developing neurotechnologies, the importance of developing ethical insight and guidance, and informing and creating regulatory policy based upon both the realistic assessment of technical capacities, and social meanings and uses of any such technical developments.

NC Is there a lot of public interest in the implications of neuro research? Public interest tends to go in waves – we had nanotechnology and cloning way back; now there’s excitement and anxiety about AI and Robots. What are the kinds of questions that those outside your field should have in their minds?

JG There is steadily growing interest in neuroscience and its technologies that has been both responsive to, and in some cases may instigate funding the development and sustenance of large scale neuroscientific programs in the United States (such as the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies – BRAIN – initiative which commenced in 2013 and will be formally winding down this year), and worldwide (such as the EU’s ongoing Human Brain Project -HBP; and concerted efforts in a number of other countries, including China, and Israel).

In many ways, prior endeavors in other areas of science and technology, such as genetics, and nano-, bio-, robotic and computational engineering, are important to the momentum of brain science, as techniques and tools of these other fields are being increasingly incorporated and used in and by the neurosciences. Neuroscience has become very much a convergent field, which entails and employs a number of disciplines, both within the physical and natural sciences, to include molecular biology, biochemistry, physics, engineering, and ever more, the social and political sciences, and humanities.

I’m fond of saying that the focus and uses of neuroscience and its technologies span from the sub-cellular to the socio-cultural scales. These various levels of current and potential utilization can give rise to a host of ethical and policy-related issues, questions and problems that demand current and ongoing attention. In the main, I’d characterize these as those that are inherent to the neurotechnology; and those that are derivative to such research and use, relative to their social implications and effects. [1]

Under the former, there are questions of safety, the nature and extent of actual capabilities, and possibilities of unanticipated and/or yet unknown effects. These new tools may reveal aspects of the structure and function of the brain that were heretofore not evident or understood, and thus it will be important to tread forward carefully, and with preparation for certain burdens and risks, with a view toward better defining if and how new and extant technologies should or should not be employed.

This then brings forth socially relevant issues, such as the meaning and value we place upon neuroscientific information and tools; implications of neurotechnologically-derived information for concepts about the nature of mind, self, free will, personhood, morality, medical and social norms; contingencies of informed consent, and distribution and access to these techniques and technologies. [2] Given the novelty of the tools at hand I believe that it’s first and foremost important to realistically appraise what we know and don’t know about the brain, and what we know and don’t know about the technologies and their effects upon the brain.

Simply put, we need to accurately assess and define what these new technologies can and cannot do, need to be scrupulous in our ability to parse fact from fiction, and need to avoid over- and under-estimations and appropriations of these technologies in various uses and settings. This is my principal concern. I’m less worried about the iterative development of ever more sophisticated neurotechnologies than I am about misinterpretation and/or misrepresentation of what they can do, and their potential misuse – or in some cases purposely re-directed use – in ways that can incur a host of burdens and harms.

Of course this is important in and to medicine, most widely in neurology and psychiatry, but this has broader importance, given that neuroscience and technology are being employed in and for purposes beyond medical care. [3] For example, there is much debate about whether certain interventions constitute a treatment or an enhancement, and to what extent such potential optimizations of human performance should be taken. [4] These interventions need not be restricted to the clinic. There is a growing interest in, and availability of direct-to-consumer neurotechnologies that are intended to affect mood, arousal, and cognitive capability; [5] and there is a dedicated “do-it-yourself” community that is involved in creating types of non-invasive brain stimulation devices, and neuroactive substances. Additionally, ongoing discourse centers upon the validity and value of using neurotechnologically-based assessments in legal proceedings to ascertain dispositions to patterns of thought and/or acts, and to provide contributory evidence for determination of guilt, and/or to affect sentencing. [6] Last, but certainly not least, is the potential utility of many forms of neuroscientific techniques and technologies in security and military operations, and here there are growing concerns about the weaponization of neuroscience. [7]
In each and all of these domains, it is critical to query whether the technologies are sufficiently well understood and developed to support their use, to address the specific ethical issues and problems, and to inform and base any formulation of guidelines and policies upon factual analyses of technical capabilities, limitations and ethical address and identified obligations. I’ve recently proposed a multi-step approach to the assessment and mitigation of risks in neurotechnology development and use; [8] but while this process is relatively straightforward in its design and goals, it will not be simple to articulate in practice, at least not universally. This is because neuroscience and neurotechnology research, development and use are, and will be ever more enacted on an international scale.

But neurotechnology is a product and tool of developed countries, and this has resulted in asymmetries in research, use and power. Attention must be paid to the medical, social, economic, and political issues and problems generated by these inequalities. Thus, discourses and deliberations about the ethics and regulatory policies that guide and govern neuroscience and technology research and its translation in the various aforementioned spheres must be sensitive and responsive to both local and global effects; and therefore must involve multi-national, multi-disciplinary participants who are representative stake- and shareholders. [9]

NC You spend part of your working life in Europe, have an appointment in a German University, and are engaged in the European Union’s Human Brain Project. As a European who still travels to Europe quite a bit I enjoy what I call the parallax – and wish Europeans better understood the U.S. approach to S and T, and vice versa. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but would love to have your comment on how you find working in these two distinct worlds.

JG I, like you, very much enjoy what you’ve called “the parallax” that working both in the US and Europe enables, and I do think the view from the EU is a bit different. In the main, I think it’s a consequence of the multi-national perspectives afforded, and the dialectical orientation and discourses that those perspectives allow. The Human Brain Project (HBP) is a European effort, and tends to be seen – and undertaken – in a multi-national light. The BRAIN initiative, on the other hand, while certainly recognizing the current state of international brain science and key achievements that can be gained through collaboration, is very much an American enterprise in its activities and, at least to some extent, perspective.

In some ways these two endeavors can be seen as parallel, and in others they can be viewed as differing in their orientation. The HBP began as a very basic science effort, with objectives to model and reverse engineer systems and pathways of the brain. Important to this was the need to acknowledge and address philosophical, ethical and social questions, issues and concerns fostered by brain research, and its eventual uses in medicine and the elsewhere in the public sphere. The BRAIN initiative, growing somewhat from the previous Congressionally-declared Decade of the Brain (1990-1999), was specifically aimed at creating new technologies that could be applied to diagnose and treat neurological and psychiatric disorders.

But these are not, nor should they be mutually exclusive. To the contrary; I think there’s considerable merit to such a “both-and,” versus an “either-or” approach. For example, recently there was expressed discontent from a number of EU scientists about the focus and scope of HBP activities, with call for a greater alignment with more translational applications, such as those axiomatic to the BRAIN initiative. But, there has also been a move in the US to adopt a more internationalized stance toward brain research and the ethics and policies that guide it, in much the way that the HBP has proceeded to date.

Such postures can be seen as beneficial, as they help to shape the agendas of current and future programs in brain science to become more internationally relevant and cooperative. This is vital, because the outcomes and products of these projects will be used in ways that are sometimes unique to particular nations’ needs, values and norms, and at other times, will be utilized in more global contexts of socio-culturally diverse environments. Discussions about science and technology, their social effects, and of the ethics and policies that address and direct S and T need to acknowledge these dimensions and settings of application. [10]

Efforts in the US and the EU are aimed at understanding the structure and activities of the brain; is the plan to map the brain once and for all?

Certainly, developing multi-scalar, comprehensive maps of the brain is a goal. But, this is an enormously complex and labor-intensive undertaking, which will require the integration of a vast amount and various types and levels of data. This necessitates a ‘big data’ approach, and calls for the use of existing computational tools, and the development of new methods, technologies and models. In short, many of the objectives of the HBP and the BRAIN initiative simply cannot be achieved absent an effective big data toolkit.

However, I think that it’s also important to ask what we are going to do with these data – both while in the process of creating such brain maps, and if and when these maps are made. This opens up a proverbial Pandora’s Box of questions and issues, including if, how and by whom such data will be accessed, assessed and used; and brings to light the normative implications of functional brain maps – not only in medicine, but as previously mentioned, in law, education, and in other social and perhaps even political contexts. So, while there have been discussions and formulation of certain guidelines and policies about big data use, these are far from complete, and these are issues with which we continue to wrestle.

NC Ray Kurzweil has been saying for a long time that machine intelligence will soon be able to mimic the brain – and then do better. How does a claim like that look from the perspective of someone whose working life is in the neuro world?

JG It’s certainly an interesting assertion, and a bit provocative, as well. I don’t doubt that computational engineering will create ever more capable forms of machine intelligence. Some will employ platforms that are modeled upon neural systems, while others will side-step some of the constraints of neural architectures. As to whether these computational technologies will mimic if not surpass functional abilities of the human brain, I think an important thing to bear in mind is that computers do certain things, such as large scale complex calculations and data retrieval, as well, if not better than human brains do. But brains do things, such as subtle pattern recognition and operation of multiple simultaneous functions in a constrained physical system better than computers.

That said, this fact does not pose a limitation. Rather, I think that it throws down the gauntlet of both challenge and opportunity. I believe that the most truly innovative and effective development would be a reciprocally cooperative system, in which the biological and machine components both accentuate their mutual competencies, and compensate for their respective limitations and/or weaknesses.

This type of brain-computer interface would obtain multi-scale and diverse types of cognitive competencies, and would overcome some of the spatial and temporal constraints of both systems. I see this as a form of “hybrid vigor”; but it still would represent a hybrid approach. The more compelling, if not contentious question is what a true chimeric human-machine system would entail and obtain.

Obviously, we’re not to there yet, but the point at which the hybrid system becomes fully integrated with human structure and function, what I’ve referred to as the hybrid boundary, is, I believe, attainable within the next ten or so years. Up- and down-linking information to and from the brain via telemetric devices is already a reality, albeit somewhat rudimentary. But the time from first steps to leaps and bounds is becoming ever shorter, and the possibilities raised by the pace and breadth of this stride are exciting, and, I’d pose, equally laden with a host of concerns. It will be interesting to be part of this evolution.

[1] Giordano J. The human prospect(s) of neuroscience and neurotechnology: Domains of influence and the necessity – and questions – of neuroethics. Human Prospect 4(1): 1-18 (2014).

Giordano J. (ed.) Neurotechnology: Premises, Potential and Problems. CRC, Boca Raton (2012).

Giordano J, Gordijn B. (eds.) Scientific and Philosophical Perspectives in Neuroethics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2010).

[2] Giordano J, Benedikter R. An early – and necessary – flight of the Owl of Minerva: Neuroscience, neurotechnology, human socio-cultural boundaries, and the importance of neuroethics. J Evolution and Technol 22(1): 14-25 (2012).

Benedikter R, Giordano J, FitzGerald K. The future of the self-image of the human being in the age of transhumanism, neurotechnology and global transition. J Futures 42(10): 1102-1109 (2010).

[3] Giordano J, Shook JR. Minding brain science in medicine: On the need for neuroethical engagement for guidance of neuroscience in clinical contexts. Ethics Biol Engineer Med 6(1-2): 37-42 (2015).

[4] Shook JR, Giordano J. Neuroethics beyond normal. Performance enablement and self-transformative technologies. Camb Q Health Care Ethics – Neuroethics Now. 25: 121-140 (2016).

Shook JR, Galvagni L, Giordano J. Cognitive enhancement kept within contexts: Neuroethics and informed public policy. Frontiers Sys Neurosci 8: 1-8 (2014).

[5] Bikson M, Paneri B, Giordano J. The off-label use, utility and potential value of tDCS in the clinical care of particular neuropsychiatric conditions. J Law Biosci, 1-5 (2016).

[6] Shats K, Brindley T, Giordano J. Don’t ask a neuroscientist about phases of the moon: Applying appropriate evidence law to the use of neuroscience in the courtroom. Camb Q Health Care Ethics – Clin Neuroethics 25(4) : 712-725 (2016).

Giordano J, Kulkarni A, Farwell J. Deliver us from evil? The temptation, realities and neuroethico-legal issues of employing assessment neurotechnologies in public safety. Theoret Med Bioethics 15(3); (2014).

[7] Giordano J. The neuroweapons threat. Bull Atomic Sci 72(3): 1-4 (2016).

Giordano J. (ed.) Neurotechnology in National Security and Defense: Practical Considerations, Neuroethical Concerns. CRC, Boca Raton (2014).

[8] Giordano J. Toward an operational neuroethical risk analysis and mitigation paradigm for emerging neuroscience and technology (neuroS/T). Exp Neurol (2016).

Giordano J. A preparatory neuroethical approach to assessing developments in neurotechnology. AMA J Ethics 17(1): 56-61 (2015).

[9] Stein DJ, Giordano J. Global mental health and neuroethics. BMC Medicine 13(1); (2015)

Shook JR, Giordano J. A principled, cosmopolitan neuroethics: Considerations for international relevance. Phil Ethics Humanities in Med 9 (1); (2014).

[10] Lanzilao E, Shook, J, Benedikter R, Giordano J. Advancing neuroscience on the 21st century world stage: The need for – and proposed structure of – an internationally relevant neuroethics. Ethics Biol Engineer Med 4(3): 211-229 (2013).