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How Neurotech Start-Ups Envision Ethical Futures: Demarcation, Deferral, Delegation

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  • Sophia Knopf, Technical University of Munich
  • ,
  • Nina Frahm
  • Sebastian M. Pfotenhauer, Technical University of Munich

Like many ethics debates surrounding emerging technologies, neuroethics is increasingly concerned with the private sector. Here, entrepreneurial visions and claims of how neurotechnology innovation will revolutionize society—from brain-computer-interfaces to neural enhancement and cognitive phenotyping—are confronted with public and policy concerns about the risks and ethical challenges related to such innovations. But while neuroethics frameworks have a longer track record in public sector research such as the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, much less is known about how businesses—and especially start-ups—address ethics in tech development. In this paper, we investigate how actors in the field frame and enact ethics as part of their innovative R&D processes and business models. Drawing on an empirical case study on direct-to-consumer (DTC) neurotechnology start-ups, we find that actors engage in careful boundary-work to anticipate and address public critique of their technologies, which allows them to delineate a manageable scope of their ethics integration. In particular, boundaries are drawn around four areas: the technology’s actual capability, purpose, safety and evidence-base. By drawing such lines of demarcation, we suggest that start-ups make their visions of ethical neurotechnology in society more acceptable, plausible and desirable, favoring their innovations while at the same time assigning discrete responsibilities for ethics. These visions establish a link from the present into the future, mobilizing the latter as promissory place where a technology’s benefits will materialize and to which certain ethical issues can be deferred. In turn, the present is constructed as a moment in which ethical engagement could be delegated to permissive regulatory standards and scientific authority. Our empirical tracing of the construction of ‘ethical realities’ in and by start-ups offers new inroads for ethics research and governance in tech industries beyond neurotechnology.

TidsskriftScience and Engineering Ethics
Antal sider20
StatusUdgivet - feb. 2023

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