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James Hughes – Cyborg Virtues: Using BCIs for Moral Enhancement

James Hughes discusses the neuroanatomy of moral cognition, and the potential for brain stimulation and brain-computer interfaces to modulate moral emotions, cognition and behavior.

This talk was part of the ‘Stepping Into the Future‘ conference.   Video here.


James Hughes
James Hughes

Synopsis: Links between brain structures and cognition began with studies of victims of brain injuries, and became more precise with advances in brain imaging. In the last two decades research has demonstrated that moral emotions and cognition can be modulated with internal and external stimulation focused on particular brain structures. While non-invasive methods of neuromodulation, like transcranial direct current stimulation, are widely available for the healthy, their effects are more diffuse and uncertain. Deep brain stimulation electrodes or implanted computer chips allow more precise sensing and stimulation, but are only applicable for severe conditions such as intractable epilepsy and treatment-resistant depression. As BCIs are miniaturized and given more capacities they will be more feasible for use by those without severe disabilities. Soon hundreds or thousands of microscopic computer chips, sensors and electrodes implanted in the brain will allow real-time sensing, inhibition and boosting of thoughts and emotions, opening up morally enhancing applications.  Individuals with brain disorders that lead to violence and criminality, for instance, could be offered BCI therapy as an alternative to psychiatric treatment or incarceration. This essay proposes a model of six virtues that could be targets of neuromodulation: self-control, caring, intelligence, positivity, fairness and transcendence. Key parts of the brain implicated in the functioning of each virtue are reviewed as possible targets for morally enhancing neuromodulation.

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