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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Merging Minds: The Conceptual and Ethical Impacts of Emerging Technologies for Collective Minds

Lyreskog, D.M., Zohny, H., Savulescu, J. et al.
Neuroethics 16, 12 (2023).


A growing number of technologies are currently being developed to improve and distribute thinking and decision-making. Rapid progress in brain-to-brain interfacing and swarming technologies promises to transform how we think about collective and collaborative cognitive tasks across domains, ranging from research to entertainment, and from therapeutics to military applications. As these tools continue to improve, we are prompted to monitor how they may affect our society on a broader level, but also how they may reshape our fundamental understanding of agency, responsibility, and other key concepts of our moral landscape.

In this paper we take a closer look at this class of technologies – Technologies for Collective Minds – to see not only how their implementation may react with commonly held moral values, but also how they challenge our underlying concepts of what constitutes collective or individual agency. We argue that prominent contemporary frameworks for understanding collective agency and responsibility are insufficient in terms of accurately describing the relationships enabled by Technologies for Collective Minds, and that they therefore risk obstructing ethical analysis of the implementation of these technologies in society. We propose a more multidimensional approach to better understand this set of technologies, and to facilitate future research on the ethics of Technologies for Collective Minds.


A new field

In this paper, we have argued that new and emerging TCMs challenge commonly held views on collective and joint actions in such a way that our conceptual and ethical frameworks appear unsuitable this domain. This inadequacy hinders both conceptual analysis and ethical assessment, and we are therefore in urgent need of a conceptual overhaul which facilitates rather than obstructs ethical assessment. In this paper, we have but taken the first steps to bring about this overhaul: while our four categories – DigiMinds, UniMinds, NetMinds and MacroMinds – can help us think about the dimensions of Collective Minds and their ethical implications, it remains an open question how we should treat TCMs, and which aspects of them are most ethically salient, as this will depend on a number of parameters, including (A) the technological specifications of any TCM, (B) the domain in which said TCM is deployed, (military, medicine, research, entertainment, etc.) and (C) reversibility (i.e. whether joining a given Collective Mind is permanent, or risk leaving significant permanent impacts). It is also worth recalling that these four categories, while based on technological capacities, are only conceptual tools to help navigate the ethical landscapes of Collective Minds. What we are likely to see in the coming years is the emergence of TCMs which do not easily lend themselves to be clearly boxed into any of these four categories, under descriptions such as “Cloudminds”, “Mindplexes”, or “Decentralized Selves”.

In anticipating and assessing the ethical impacts of Collective Minds, we propose that we move beyond binary approaches to thinking about agency and responsibility (i.e. that they are either individual or collective), and that frameworks focus attention instead on the specifics of ABCs as stated above. Furthermore, we stress the need to fluently and continuously refine conceptual tools to encompass those specifics, to adapt our ethical frameworks with equal agility.