Reality Studies
Urgent Futures with Jesse Damiani
Nita Farahany: Neurotech, the Latest Skirmishes in the 'Battle for Your Brain,' and Your Right to Cognitive Liberty | Urgent Futures #15
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Nita Farahany: Neurotech, the Latest Skirmishes in the 'Battle for Your Brain,' and Your Right to Cognitive Liberty | Urgent Futures #15

🎙 Jesse sits down with Professor Nita Farahany to talk the promise and peril of neurotechnology, brain-computer interfaces, and AI—and why it's critical that we build human rights protections now.

Welcome to the Urgent Futures podcast, the show that finds signal in the noise. Each week, I sit down with leading thinkers whose research, concepts, and questions clarify the chaos, from culture to the cosmos.

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My guest this week is Nita Farahany.

Nita Farahany is a pioneering changemaker and leading authority at the intersection of law, ethics, and technology. As the Robinson O. Everett Distinguished Professor of Law & Philosophy at Duke Law School, and Founding Director of Duke Science & Society, she drives transformative discussions on technology's ethical implications. Her seminal book, The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology (2023), charts a pathway to cognitive freedom in an increasingly interconnected world. A highly sought after speaker, her insights resonate from TED stages to the World Economic Forum. Serving on President Obama’s Presidential Commission (2010-2017) and advising entities including the U.S. BRAIN Initiative and the World Economic Forum, her expertise influences global technology policy. With a JD and Ph.D. in law and philosophy from Duke University, an AB in Genetics from Dartmouth, and ALM in Biology from Harvard, Farahany's interdisciplinary background informs her role as a prominent voice shaping global discourse on emerging technologies. Her leadership has been recognized broadly, including by election to the American Law Institute, AAAS, appointment to the Uniform Laws Commission, and her advisory role for Scientific American.

I know everybody is still caught up on AI, and for good reason. But AI is far from the only technology that holds incredible promise and peril for our species. Another is neurotechnology. Neurotech is a broad, squishy category. On Wikipedia, it’s described as “[encompassing] any method or electronic device which interfaces with the nervous system to monitor or modulate neural activity.”

One form of neurotech that has garnered attention—or at least meme-able social media moments—is brain-computer interface technology. Remember the monkey playing pong with its brain using Neuralink technology? You probably know this already, but Neuralink is owned by Elon Musk. So let’s imagine for a moment that Neuralink succeeds in rolling out the first mainstream BCIs. How would you feel about that single company knowing your mental, emotional, and psychological responses to stimuli? Things you might not even realize about yourself?

Suddenly it makes a lot of sense why we need clear frameworks for protecting individuals now, rather than waiting until the technology is being rolled out to the public. This is why Professor Nita Farahany claims we urgently need to protect our fundamental right to “cognitive liberty.” She elaborates this idea in The Battle for Your Brain, what I see as the defining book on modern neurotechnology. Furthermore, she does an exceptional job in the book describing the state of affairs of neurotech as an industry and community, highlighting both the reasons to be excited and concerned about the technology, as well as sketching how we could begin incorporating legal protections through the human rights framework. And this week the book got a special paperbook release with an all-new chapter on—wait for it!—AI. So it’s a perfect time to go grab a copy, which I strongly encourage you to do!

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CREDITS: This podcast is edited and produced by Adam Labrie and me, Jesse Damiani. Adam Labrie also directed, shot, and edited the video version of the podcast, which is available on YouTube. The podcast is presented by Reality Studies. If you appreciate the work I’m doing, please subscribe and share it with someone you think would enjoy it.

Find more episodes of Urgent Futures at: youtube.com/@UrgentFutures. Past conversations include Taylor Lorenz, Lia Halloran & Kip Thorne, Cherie Hu, Lisa Messeri, Legacy Russell, and more. Here is another recent episode with Cyborg (MIT Press) co-authors Laura Forlano & Danya Glabau:

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Reality Studies
Urgent Futures with Jesse Damiani
Welcome to the Urgent Futures Podcast, the show that finds signal in the noise. Each episode, I sit down with leading thinkers for dialogues that clarify the chaos, from culture to the cosmos.