When man and machine collide

technology Ethics debate: when man and machine merge

"The dignity of mankind has been given into your hand, keep it! It sinks with you! With you it will rise!" This is how Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) warns in his poem "The Artists". To this day, the debate about human dignity has been conducted from many perspectives: philosophical, legal or medical. The German Ethics Council is now dealing with human dignity in connection with new technologies. Questions that already crop up elsewhere, for example in prenatal examinations or on the subject of artificial intelligence. The Ethics Council deals with all the questions that technical progress raises: What happens when humans intervene in the human brain, "optimize" it? Do procedures such as deep brain stimulation interfere with human dignity?

Deep brain stimulation - what is it?

Deep brain stimulation is a neurological intervention and works like this: When the patient is fully conscious, an electrode is inserted into the brain through a hole in the skull. Depending on the disease, four to five different brain regions are targeted. These are then electronically stimulated once or over a longer period of time. The so-called brain pacemaker has been used successfully for decades with Parkinson's patients, people with Tourette's syndrome or tremor patients. It suppresses the tremor or the tic. The procedure is also known at the Center for Brain Stimulation at the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Tübingen and is used for depression.

In this area it is much more difficult to carry out meaningful clinical studies than it is in the area of ​​Parkinson's.

Christian Plewnia

... says clinic director Christian Plewnia. The reason for this is that the clinical picture of depression is so complex and individual. He therefore considers an ethics debate about these interventions to be important, but possibly premature:

I can already imagine that fears and problems should be sketched out in advance. What we currently have does not change the paradigm.

Christian Plewnia

Thanks to science fiction films like "Matrix" and a rapid technological development, there are the wildest fantasies: What if Google and Facebook can access our brainwaves and read our minds? What if I get more effective with an electrode? Or can depressed people laugh again? What if, in the future, we could power psychopaths into nice people? This is what moves the German ethics committee at its annual meeting, says brain researcher Katrin Amunts, who is also Vice-Chair of the German Ethics Council:

The fact is that technology is faster than us, that's why we're already talking about it. And we think about whether we need changes, processes that take time. It is an important task of the Ethics Council to foresee.

Katrin Amunts

In addition to the question of how to treat non-mature patients, for example, there are questions that extend far into the future:

This deep brain stimulation is a technology that can be hacked. Data security and patient protection must be ensured. We still have no idea of ​​that today.

Katrin Amunts

The dream of neuro-enhancement, i.e. the optimized brain, is probably as old as humanity. While students are throwing pills into themselves, brain research is catching up. And who says no when an electrode promises to grow old happily? New studies at the psychiatric clinic at the University of Tübingen show it: older people with fear of Alzheimer's disease could be taken away by brain stimulation. Delaying the disease is something neurologists and psychiatrists still dream of. Or: Wouldn't it be nice if I could get my children to tidy up at the push of a button? Maybe! In any case, the social debate on these questions is important and inevitable.