There is a myth about how science progresses: great men have a eureka moment, and rush in to the lab to do the definitive experiment, often bravely and with the opposition of the Science Establishment, and single-handedly revolutionize a discipline. It’s nonsense. I can’t think of a single example of that kind of work that has gotten anywhere — the closest might be Isaac Newton, who developed some great ideas working privately at his home in Woolsthorpe, but even he was tightly connected to a community of fellow scientists. Science is very much a communal and communicative endeavor, and is built “on the shoulders of giants.”
So I do not approve of the work of Phil Kennedy, which looks like a lot of hare-brained Frankensteinian self-indulgence. Kennedy could not get approval for his experiments in implanting electrodes in human brains — I wonder why? — so he charged off to the Caribbean and had bits of wire and glass stuck deep into his own brain. It did not go well.
The brain surgery lasted 11 and a half hours, beginning on the afternoon of June 21, 2014, and stretching into the Caribbean predawn of the next day. In the afternoon, after the anesthesia had worn off, the neurosurgeon came in, removed his wire-frame glasses, and held them up for his bandaged patient to examine. “What are these called?” he asked.
Phil Kennedy stared at the glasses for a moment. Then his gaze drifted up to the ceiling and over to the television. “Uh … uh … ai … aiee,” he stammered after a while, “… aiee … aiee … aiee.”
Don’t worry, he got better — his deficits were caused by post-operative swelling of his brain, and that eventually diminished, and he started recording data off his electrode.
When Kennedy finally did present the data that he’d gathered from himself—first at an Emory University symposium last May and then at the Society for Neuroscience conference in October—some of his colleagues were tentatively supportive. By taking on the risk himself, by working alone and out-of-pocket, Kennedy managed to create a sui generis record of language in the brain, Chang says: “It’s a very precious set of data, whether or not it will ultimately hold the secret for a speech prosthetic. It’s truly an extraordinary event.” Other colleagues found the story thrilling, even if they were somewhat baffled: In a field that is constantly hitting up against ethical roadblocks, this man they’d known for years, and always liked, had made a bold and unexpected bid to force brain research to its destiny. Still other scientists were simply aghast. “Some thought I was brave, some thought I was crazy,” Kennedy says.
I’d score him as foolhardy and arrogant. I don’t even know what one could do with the data — no one is going to replicate it, there’s nothing to test, and future technologies will probably make Kennedy’s mad adventure irrelevant and unnecessary to replicate. This is a dead end, and risking scrambling your brain is not a smart gamble.
Further, this idea that one has to work around “ethical roadblocks” is troubling. There are “ethical roadblocks” to murdering someone; we don’t generally consider it a virtue if someone works out a clever way to kill a person that isn’t prosecutable under the law. We are talking about brain surgeries on human subjects — damn right there better be ethical limitations imposed on that. The only way around that is to demonstrate that the proposed procedures are safe and pose negligible risk, with incremental experimental work in animals and with duplication and verification by multiple investigators. Transhumanists might dream of some amazing Prigogenic leap that abruptly makes their cyborg aspirations reality, but it’s not going to happen that way.
I also shouldn’t want scientists to be encouraged to come up with ways to get around ethics. What next, is informed consent getting in your way, so you need to come up with a cunning plan to avoid it?