Public Release: 

Who is responsible if a brain-controlled robot drops a baby?

Neuroethics: Neurotech experts call for new measures to ensure brain-controlled devices are beneficial and safe

Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering

Wyss Center, Geneva, Switzerland - As brain-controlled robots enter everyday life, an article published in Science states that now is the time to take action and put in place guidelines that ensure the safe and beneficial use of direct brain-machine interaction.

Accountability, responsibility, privacy and security are all key when considering ethical dimensions of this emerging field.

If a semi-autonomous robot did not have a reliable control or override mechanism, a person might be considered negligent if they used it to pick up a baby, but not for other less risky activities. The authors propose that any semi-autonomous system should include a form of veto control - an emergency stop - to help overcome some of the inherent weaknesses of direct brain-machine interaction.

Professor John Donoghue, Director of the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, Switzerland said: "Although we still don't fully understand how the brain works, we are moving closer to being able to reliably decode certain brain signals. We shouldn't be complacent about what this could mean for society. We must carefully consider the consequences of living alongside semi-intelligent brain-controlled machines and we should be ready with mechanisms to ensure their safe and ethical use."

"We don't want to overstate the risks nor build false hope for those who could benefit from neurotechnology. Our aim is to ensure that appropriate legislation keeps pace with this rapidly progressing field."

Protecting biological data recorded by brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) is another area of concern. Security solutions should include data encryption, information hiding and network security. Guidelines for patient data protection already exist for clinical studies but these standards differ across countries and may not apply as rigorously to purely human laboratory research.

Professor Niels Birbaumer, Senior Research Fellow at the Wyss Center in Geneva (formerly at University of Tübingen, Germany) said: "The protection of sensitive neuronal data from people with complete paralysis who use a BMI as their only means of communication, is particularly important. Successful calibration of their BMI depends on brain responses to personal questions provided by the family (for example, "Your daughter's name is Emily?"). Strict data protection must be applied to all people involved, this includes protecting the personal information asked in questions as well as the protection of neuronal data to ensure the device functions correctly."

The possibility of 'brainjacking' - the malicious manipulation of brain implants - is a serious consideration say the authors. While BMI systems to restore movement or communication to paralysed people do not initially seem an appealing target, this could depend on the status of the user - a paralysed politician, for example, might be at increased risk of a malicious attack as brain readout improves.


The article: Help, hope and hype: ethical dimensions of neuroprosthetics by Jens Clausen, Eberhard Fetz, John Donoghue, Junichi Ushiba, Ulrike Spörhase, Jennifer Chandler, Niels Birbaumer and Surjo R. Soekadar is published in Science.

Notes to Reporters

For more images, high res video or to arrange interviews please contact:

Jo Bowler, Media and Public Relations Manager
Desk: +41 (0) 58 201 03 09
Mobile: +41 (0) 79 861 10 68
Twitter: @Wysscenter

Video (high res available on request)

Please credit: Wyss Center Solving paralysis with a brain-computer interface.


Please credit all images: Wyss Center

Robot fingers

Robot handshake 1

Robot handshake 2

Robot handshake 3

Robot hand holds glass

An electroencephalography (EEG) cap for measuring brain activity on study participant 1:

An electroencephalography (EEG) cap for measuring brain activity on study participant 2:

An electroencephalography (EEG) cap for measuring brain activity on model head:

The plug through which brain signals travel from the brain to a computer

A prototype neurocommunication device on a skull for scale

More information, including a copy of the paper, can be found online at the Science press package webpage at You will need your user ID and password to access this information.

About the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering

The Wyss Center provides the expertise, facilities and resources to accelerate the development of creative neuroscience research into clinical solutions for human benefit.

Based at Campus Biotech in Geneva Switzerland, the Wyss Center offers competitively awarded project funding for innovative neurotechnology research projects that have the potential to make substantial impact.

The Center provides access to advanced neuroscience and engineering facilities, as well as the integrated clinical, regulatory and business resources required to guide high risk, high return projects on their complex journey from research to product.

The Wyss Center's unique interdisciplinary team of specialists, including research scientists, engineers, regulatory experts, business development specialists and clinicians, help to develop the products that will prevent, diagnose or treat nervous system disorders, or will lead to useful technology with the potential to improve lives.

The Center will support highly innovative neurotechnology projects from anywhere in the world as long as they fit the core mission to accelerate the development of neurotechnology for human benefit and make full use of the Center's capabilities and resources.

A major goal is to ensure that innovative neurotechnologies advance until they are sufficiently mature to attract corporate partnerships, venture funding, or other mechanisms necessary to make them broadly available to society.

Established by a generous donation from the Swiss entrepreneur and philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, the Wyss Center is a partner in a progressive new neuroscience hub at Campus Biotech in Geneva.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.