Interest in the recent The Matrix Resurrections, the newest in the Matrix film franchise, shows its continuing ability to provoke discussion about the nature of reality and the possibility of virtual worlds
However, the way brain-computer interfaces are used to exploit people in the films has received less attention. Although extreme and disconnected from life in 2022, this technological aspect of the series could be thought of as gesturing at human rights issues that are currently emerging and may require a legal response.
In light of progress in neuroscience and the development of technologies allowing for a direct interaction between human brains and computers, such as are being pursued by companies like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, it is worth reflecting on the neurotechnological exploitation that features in the series. This is clearly set out in the original 1999 movie. In this film humans interact with the virtual world of the Matrix via a piece of neurotechnology- a brain-computer interface – which facilitates their exploitation.
The film shows a world in which artificially intelligent machines have captured most humans and placed them in pods in order to harvest energy from their bodies. The machines pacified their human captives by interfacing their brains (via a plug in the back of their heads) to a virtual reality world in which people believe they are living the kind of lives led before captivity. This is how nearly all humans come to passively lie in their pods for their whole lives, providing energy to their captors, oblivious to the fact all their experiences are algorithm-induced hallucinations.
In the exploitative world of the Matrix, neurotechnologically-facilitated virtual reality takes on the soporific role and might usefully stimulate discussion on the ethical direction of today’s advances.
Technology already exists which allows for a close connection between human brains and machines or even the internet. Whether it be brain-computer interface technology that allows paralysed people to control wheelchairs or cursors and to compose emails, it is no longer the case that everyone needs to rely on their muscle system to take action. Thoughts can control real or virtual objects without bodily action.
Technology can also influence the brain directly. For example, it is possible for an implanted device to stimulate the brain of a person with epilepsy to prevent a fit. Progress is also being made towards treating mental health issues by way of neurotechnological devices.
These are very significant upsides to these developments. However, getting closer to the unreal world of the Matrix, research involving inducing hallucinations in mice evokes concerns about the possibility of manipulation. Scientists have developed a means of influencing the behaviour of mice that seems to cause them to hallucinate. Specifically, the researchers record the neural activity of mice as they see a stimulus connected with food, and which causes the animals to behave a certain way (licking), and later stimulate their brains using the recorded pattern of neural activity. Even though at this later time the mice to do not see the visual stimulus, they lick anyhow upon direct brain stimulation, as if being played like a piano. Importantly, the licking elicited by the neuronal stimulation is identical to the licking when the animals see the visual stimulus, as if the animal could not distinguish between the real stimulus and the implanted one. The researchers concluded they triggered the hallucination of seeing the food stimulus by activating its internal representation in the brain.
Given that as Columbia University’s Professor Rafael Yuste, one of the scientists engaged in this research, has said “what is possible in animals today may be possible in humans tomorrow”, and even though research of this kind may lead to treatments for conditions such as schizophrenia, a disorder plagued by visual and auditory hallucination, it is not surprising that some (including Professor Yuste) have ethical concerns about the use of neurotechnology outside the clinic or research laboratories.
If neurotechnologies were to become widely used in both medical and non-medical contexts (as is the hope of companies who are engaged in the race to commercialise them), these organisations will have the power to read from our brains and directly stimulate them. Some of them might want to use their power to influence the behaviour of those with brain-implants (or even to use non-invasive neurotechnology) in a way that is exploitative or otherwise concerning. Even if companies have more benign motives, that may not be the case for any hackers or state actors who get access to this capacity.
Issues like these have given rise to demands for the recognition of “neurorights” such as the right to mental privacy and mental integrity. A debate is taking place amongst ethicists about what should be done, and this discussion has now spilled over into law reform. At the end of last year, Chile became the first country to alter its constitution to address concerns about neurorights and Spain may now be following suit.
The Matrix series presents a dystopian view of the way neurotechnology is employed in a science fiction world, but it could serve as a reminder to pay attention to the way the technology is actually developing. It seems that the Chileans have taken the view that legal action is necessary to channel it. Other countries may also need to use law to direct its course before it directs ours.