Protecting Our Freedom of Thought with Nita Farahany

August 3, 2023

We are on the cusp of an explosion of cheap, consumer-ready neurotechnology - from earbuds that gather our behavioral data, to sensors that can read our dreams. And it’s all going to be supercharged by AI. This technology is moving from niche to mainstream - and it has the same potential to become exponential.

Legal scholar Nita Farahany talks us through the current state of neurotechnology and its deep links to AI. She says that we urgently need to protect the last frontier of privacy: our internal thoughts. And she argues that without a new legal framework around “cognitive liberty,” we won’t be able to insulate our brains from corporate and government intrusion.


Nita A. Farahany is the Robinson O. Everett Distinguished Professor of Law & Philosophy at Duke University, and Founding Director of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society. She is a frequent commentator for national media and radio and keynote speaker at events including TED, the Aspen Ideas Festival, the World Economic Forum, and judicial conferences worldwide. From 2010-2017, she served as a Commissioner on the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. She is also co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Law and the Biosciences and on the Board of Advisors for Scientific American. Farahany holds an AB (Genetics) from Dartmouth College, an ALM (Biology) from Harvard University, and a JD, MA, and Ph.D. (Philosophy) from Duke University.

Episode Highlights

Major Takeaways

  1. Where does persuasion end and manipulation begin? We need to define a new kind of commons in order to “reset the terms of service” - both philosophically and legally. Nita shares the notion of freedom of action, an update to the concept of free will. There’s no individual choice when it comes to technology; our existence becomes obsolete if we don’t assimilate it into our lives.
  2. We’re already seeing neurotech that is more invasive than we realize. Several factors have converged over the last few years to make these advances possible. Sensors have gotten cheaper and smaller, and now fit into multifunctional devices like watches, earbuds, and headphones. We’ve moved beyond niche applications - like meditation or neurofeedback for therapeutic purposes - to using our brain activity as a way to be able to replace peripheral devices like a mouse or a keyboard. The growth of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) and the investments into those spaces plays a role as well. It’s disturbing to imagine the potential misuse from companies, authoritarian regimes, and law enforcement agencies.
  3. There’s a familiar problem with the business model. Whether they’ll admit it or not, some tech companies have long held the approach to the brain to be: how can we exploit and addict it? When those same companies gain new capabilities through the acquisitions they make, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, it paints a troubling picture.
  4. All of this has led to stark asymmetries of power. When you put on a clunky helmet, or if you're in an FMRI machine, you have actively consented to a process. But when the sensors become invisible, you may not be thinking about how much private data is actually being generated. And if that data is stored, it can be mined later on and probed for so much more. There used to be five domains of warfare (land, sea, air, space, and information), and Nita suggests the human brain may be the sixth.
  5. There are benefits offered by wearable neurotech, but we need to implement a reframing of cognitive liberty. The ability to track things like stress, attention span, cognitive fitness levels, and depression will allow us to intervene more quickly and usher in a new era of advances. Nonetheless, a reset is needed, and Nita shares the five dimensions to consider for this reframing: international, national (context-specific), research design, commercial design, and individual awareness to protect against manipulation.

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