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Principles set for computer, brain links

Ministry provides guidance on ethical research practices in cutting-edge field

By Jiang Chenglong | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-20 09:09

A visitor experiences the brain-computer interface technology from Tianjin University at the seventh World Intelligence Congress in Tianjin. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

China has been paying more attention to the ethics of brain-computer interface research, as both it and the United States, the world's two leading technological powers, have recently made breakthroughs in the area.

The Ministry of Science and Technology issued guidance early this month on the ethics of BCI research, aiming to guide the conduct of research and prevent ethical risks in research and the application of the technology.

This guidance, developed by the Artificial Intelligence Ethics Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Ethics Committee, outlined six basic principles for researchers and institutions.

The first principle emphasized that BCI research should be "moderate and harmless", with the fundamental purpose of "assisting, enhancing, repairing human's sensory and motor functions, or improving human-computer interaction capabilities, to enhance human health and welfare".

In addition, research should respect participants' rights to be informed and make autonomous decisions, ensuring the maximum integrity of the human brain in terms of structure, function and consciousness, it said.

Moreover, research should ensure high-quality design, effectively control risks, conduct ethical and data security reviews of plans and results, and promote risk monitoring throughout the process to protect participants' safety, privacy, data security and legal rights.

Additionally, the guidance stressed that "for rare diseases that seriously endanger life and for which no other effective treatment is available, clinical trials of innovative BCI products can be conducted under strict compliance with national regulations on medical devices and clinical research, with fully informed consent".

Recently, research teams from Beijing-based Xuanwu Hospital affiliated to Capital Medical University and Tsinghua University's School of Medicine announced that a quadriplegic patient had achieved autonomous drinking and other brain-controlled functions, with a grasping accuracy rate of over 90 percent, after two coin-sized BCI processors that were produced domestically were implanted in the patient's brain.

At the end of January, US billionaire Elon Musk announced that the brain-chip startup Neuralink had implanted a device in a human for the first time, with the patient recovering well and showing promising neuron spike detection.

The BCI research findings in both China and the US have sparked significant discussion and concern on social media networks in both countries, with many expressing worries about the risks associated with such research.

The guidance set out a series of specific requirements, including legality and compliance, social and scientific value, privacy and personal information protection, and risk prevention and control.

It also provided ethical guidelines for five types of BCI research, including noninvasive, interventional and augmentative applications.

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