The limits of traditional arms control models

By Christopher Green, September 11, 2008

Margaret Kosal made several interesting propositions in her last commentary. One sentence struck me as particularly important and may present an opportunity to integrate three orthogonal threads of this discussion that otherwise indicate a divergence in opinion. She wrote: “For those of us working with traditional international relations theories and theorists, these questions of emerging security impact are also prime opportunities to test previous models and illustrate the importance and potential of technical security studies.”

I have argued that it may not be fruitful to investigate traditional arms control models, due to differences in value systems and research methods across cultures. Yet, it is important to at least seek pathways to mitigate improper ethics in neural research. Let me explain why. Jonathan Moreno has emphasized how human understanding might only be provable by existential discernment, not scientific reductionism. Andreas Roepstorff and Sita Kotnis add to this notion by emphasizing the emergent condition of neural research and how transferring laboratory results to military field applications may not be feasible, ethical, or wise. Indeed, as I suggested earlier, breakthrough discoveries will, at least in part, be made outside current Western arms control models. And, it will not be possible to modify these models by engaging foreign governments.

With these thoughts in mind, two parts of Kosal’s idea, the notion of “traditional international relations theories” and of “opportunities to test previous models,” will present challenges, since the countries of greatest importance have neither embraced traditional Western theories of power relationships, nor are necessarily using Western research approaches in the neural sciences. Finally, to the extent that humanness is inextricably linked not only to neurons but also to a holographic and quantum consciousness that results in behavior–an idea that we have all agreed on, albeit in different ways–is it even appropriate to attempt to direct global research? Why should scientists attempt to regulate the conduct of research before we understand or agree on each other’s individual values and cultural interpretations of neural behavior, and on differing government rights of control?

To find a way out of the box we have created for ourselves, we need to first decide who wants to talk. To the extent that scientists negotiate agreements on the ethical boundaries of neural science as a way to shape oversight of laboratories, we need to know which states and labs are more likely to change. Outside of the Western world, the goals and the controls on neurotechnology research and dual-use applications are heterogeneous, as they are in other areas of research that have military applications. Thus, this dialogue probably shouldn’t start with governments that are perceived to disregard the importance of individual liberty over a social value.

Can we identify a common organizational structurethat exists above or separate froma single government policy arm that could engage in this discussion? Examples might include national academies of sciences. In both the United States and China, for example, the academies of sciences provide valuable, non-binding advice to government policy arms. Recent research reports about torture (completed by the U.S. National Research Council) and the need to address greenhouse emissions (completed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University) demonstrate that quasi-governmental organizations will at least engage controversy in their respective nations. What about the other countries–such as Brazil, Russia, Australia, Iran, and South Korea–where seminal work in neurotechnology is underway? Which of these countries should we engage first? If we can get there, we can begin the more fruitful discussion of how to engage them.

Topics: Biosecurity