Elon Musk’s Brain Chip Company Is Accused of Animal Cruelty
The incidents, in which monkey test subjects were allegedly abused and killed, show how privatized medical innovation has an ethics problem.
Sometimes, a tech company comes along and promises wonders. The newest one on the block is Neuralink, owned by billionaire and tech magnate Elon Musk, which promises to establish a “direct link between the brain and everyday technology” for people who suffer from paralysis. It sounds brilliant in theory, and life-changing if it could work.
As it often happens, finding out if any innovation works is fraught with a dark taint: the research often bypasses crucial ethical considerations.
In this case, the company allegedly left macaque monkeys to die under torturous conditions. The testing process reportedly involved a substance called BioGlue which allegedly destroyed the macaque monkeys’ brain, according to an advocacy group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). PCRM itself doesn’t carry the best reputation: reports suggest that it has engaged in intimidation tactics against researchers and militantly advocates for plant-based diets. Nevertheless, their present complaint deserves scrutiny — it raises larger questions about who funds science and the level of accountability these stakeholders must exercise. The incidents also show how privatized medical innovation has an ethics problem.
The debate on private-versus-federal or government funding for research has raged for a long time. The trouble with Neuralink is that it is a for-profit, medical device technology company that is privately funded. The Elon Musks of the world have emerged as “disruptive” players in the tech world, promising great strides in all kinds of innovation including biomedical. But while this start-up model of disruptive tech is premised on speed, biomedical research by principle cannot easily bypass the ethical checkpoints due to the stakes involved. For one — if the test subjects involved suffered such grievous fates, it is cause for concern as to how the technology would impact its intended beneficiaries.
Government funding is driven by taxpayers. It establishes an indirect link between beneficiaries of research and the research itself, thereby installing more checks and balances in place. “Governments remain the only organizations capable of imposing on these private companies respect for the general good…Moreover, researchers are frequently pushed by the current funding system to find their funding in partnership with private companies, which reduces their independence,” notes one 2019 study.
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On the other hand, private funding imbues research with commercial interests and can enable positive biases for the technology at hand to creep in. “There is always the danger of creeping bias into research results and peer evaluation mechanism through private grants,” a comparative analysis in Conduct Science notes. The idea is that if the funders themselves have a stake in the outcome of a particular study or innovation, the research is more likely to be compromised by bias. Research has shown this bias to be true for for-profit companies: “Conclusions in trials funded by for-profit organizations may be more positive due to biased interpretation of trial results.”
Experts pondering publicly funded research in biomedical technology have also noted that such research tends to be more “basic” in nature and applicable across fields — meaning that it furthers more fundamental levels of understanding that can be applied across fields. But private sector firms can tend to underestimate the importance of fundamental research, an ethos that spills over into medical device technology that is often fraught.
“Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health,” notes another study on how funding sources influence the outcome of research in nutrition. In other words, even the end goal of such research projects may not justify the means.
This can naturally lead to ethical lapses in more ways than one. “If one wants true ethical control of innovation, governments and public regulatory agencies must retain high scientific expertise, let their experts speak and act freely and not rely on the expertise of private companies whose motivations are often primarily financial and based on a short-term outlook,” experts say.
Moreover, the claims against Neuralink have a precedent going back centuries and were instrumental in shaping ethical practices today. The Victorian “antivivisection” movement campaigned similarly against cruelty towards animals in scientific testing. From Rene Descartes to Immanuel Kant, animals have been posited as morally important by virtue of their capacity to suffer. Since then, science has come a long way: scientists adopted the 3Rs ethical framework: “Replace, Reduce and Refine the use of animals wherever possible.”
“In sum… [there is] the need of a publicly accountable oversight of animals’ involvement in its activities,” a paper on the subject notes.
The issue of animal ethics is fraught, particularly when it involves non-human primates. Private interests can conceal the extent of ethical violations that slip under the radar: something that is not just morally questionable, but not good for science as a whole. “I consider these issues virtually daily… The day I stop considering these issues is the day I quit,” a US neuroscientist told Nature.
Neuralink has responded to the controversy with a statement, claiming that the animal test subjects were “respected and honored by our team.” Should we take their word for it? Going by past evidence, it would appear not.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.