Neuro-rights

by Felipe Debasa (University Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid)

The history of social evolution is also the history of social rights achievements and in this equation the role of technology must be taken into account. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves whether the technology that exists at any given moment shapes social evolution or whether it is society that creates the technology it needs for its development. We think that it is available technology that shapes society, and in this respect, we could cite how the geographical limits of the provinces in Spain and Portugal were marked according to the technology of displacement existing at the time: the horse. Probably if the limit were set today, it would not be on the basis of the distance a person can travel to and from the place in a single day.

By legal system or law, we are referring to the set of rules that regulate human relations in society and which are imposed by States in a coercive manner. But in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the era in which social changes occur in a rapid and disruptive manner, the law is also the regulator that allows these social changes to be accelerated or slowed down. Thus, with regard to new technologies, perhaps we could explain why Anglo-Saxon countries implement technology in society much more quickly than Latin countries. Remember Cordeiro, J. L, that in Anglo-Saxon countries what the law does not explicitly prohibit is basically allowed; while in Roman-based legal systems what is not expressly regulated is basically prohibited.

The human rights of the Contemporary Age are mainly established after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, those of the present time or world, after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. However, some voices in the Islamic world understand that the foundations of human rights in our culture, including the fertile Crescent, are found in the Cyrus Cylinder, a text that describes various episodes from two and a half millennia ago. Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, stresses that the text of the cylinder should be studied in the history of human rights. Mesopotamia, the French Revolution and the Cold War are quite far removed from today’s world, which makes it necessary to consider updating the study of human rights.

Historians construct historical stages mainly on the basis of political events with little regard for technology. But if we now had to make a drastic separation of stages in recent years we could probably say that the world changed with the appearance of Google. So we have the world before Google and the world after Google. Something similar is happening with biotechnology in terms of sequencing and genetic modification, above all in terms of what it does for human beings. We find that the world changes radically with the first sequencing of a human genome and the subsequent democratisation of this technology. Both dates, the appearance of Google and the sequencing of the human genome, are very close, and this is where the world that we will have to live in in the coming years begins.

In 2019 I was able to enjoy a research stay at the University of Minho with Professor Alessandra Souza Silveira, specializing in Human Rights and Biotechnology. To my master students in Braga I showed them a gadget with which I could measure and sequence my brain activity and explained the many applications that were to come. In my Biotechnology and Human Rights classes I talked about privacy, data protection and custody, and how data that could form a biological body should travel over the Internet. In Spain, opening someone else’s mail is a crime. To make an analogy, imagine tapping into someone else’s WhatsApp or opening an email that is not from yourself. Even more so if this data includes our genetic fingerprint with which to unravel the mysteries of our lives, such as possible diseases and even life expectancy. But with the brainwave sequencer we go a step further, as we can analyse another person’s thoughts in real time. That is why, in the 21st century, in the midst of the 4th Industrial Revolution, the Human Rights of Biotechnology must take a further step and begin to analyse the neuro-rights or human rights of our neurological system. If we do not act quickly, we will be faced with Orwell’s thoughts[i]. And with modern technology, we will also be able to measure it.

Social evolution is being constructed in the new scenarios designed by technology and the legal system, in addition to regulating them, must allow for evolution while protecting human beings. The advances in neuroscience accompanied by endocrinology are exposing the thoughts and emotions of human beings. It is therefore necessary to raise the issue of neuro-rights now. In other words, the protection of the thoughts and emotions of human beings. Especially when we have projects like Neuralink[ii], Elon Musk’s company, which is working on Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMI)[iii]. The Spanish neuroscientist Rafael Yuste, one of the members of the BRAIN[iv] project, warns that “we must prohibit the manipulation of the brain before it is possible” and for this purpose he has already put forward five neuro-rights[v]:

  • Right to personal identity to prevent human identities from being diluted by connecting brains to computers.
  • Right to free will
  • Right to mental privacy
  • The right to equitable access to capacity-building technologies
  • Right to protection against bias and discrimination

The debate raised by a neuroscientist is now in hands of jurists.


[i] Orwell, G (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four.

[ii]  Dadia, T., & Greenbaum, D. (2019). Neuralink: The Ethical ‘Rithmatic of Reading and Writing to the Brain. AJOB neuroscience10(4), 187-189.

[iii] Monasterio Astobiza, A., Ausín, T., Toboso, M., Morte Ferrer, R., Aparicio Payá, M., & López, D. (2019). Traducir el pensamiento en acción: Interfaces cerebro-máquina y el problema ético de la agencia. Revista de Bioética y Derecho, (46), 29-46.

[iv] The Human Brain Project aims to put in place a cutting-edge research infrastructure that will allow scientific and industrial researchers to advance our knowledge in the fields of neuroscience, computing, and brain-related medicine. https://www.humanbrainproject.eu/en/ , available in October 2020

[v] Salas, J. Por qué hay que prohibir que nos manipulen el cerebro antes de que sea posible. El País, 12.02.2020. https://elpais.com/elpais/2020/01/30/ciencia/1580381695_084761.html , available in October 2020

Picture credits: TheDigitalArtist.


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