Georgia Tech Professor Says Balancing Innovation and Security in Neuroscience Crucial

Machines that can read thoughts. Minds linked with computers. Pills that can ease or even erase horrible memories of war. These are the sort of advances cognitive neuroscience researchers are pursuing to better treat disease, help soldiers endure battle and improve life after traumatic injuries.

But the scientists working on such projects don't always realize the potential downsides of their work, according to research by Margaret E. Kosal, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. The School is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

A Blind Spot for Researchers

Margaret E. Kosal

In fact, more than 30 percent of the approximately 300 scientists surveyed by Kosal, and then doctoral-candidate Jonathan Huang, in 2015 said they saw no threat that their research or that of colleagues could be misapplied to cause harm. Work that does carry such potential is often called “dual use.”

Because cognitive research focuses on people, the implications of technologies arising from such work is closely tied to the study of social processes, including politics and international relations, said Kosal, a social scientist whose work focuses on the intersection of technology and national security.

“There's a lot that we sort of pick up from the popular culture,” she said. “So people think about The Matrix, people think about Minority Report, and we’re not really to that yet, but some of the underlying ideas are things that are being worked at. And those are also the kind of ideas that prompt concerns in the national security realm.”

Turning Neuroscience Against Humanity

For instance, Kosal said, one could imagine authoritarian rulers looking to exploit mind-scanning devices, such as an invasive MRI meant to help treat disease, to instead quash dissent. Foreign hackers targeting advanced prosthetics could gain control of the devices or even affect someone’s thoughts in unnoticeable ways. Powerful mind-altering medicines meant for good also could end up going to nefarious purposes.

Today, many such applications of these emerging technologies are still firmly in the realm of science fiction. Yet governments around the world are racing to adapt neuroscience research to military purposes, Kosal notes.

The U.S. military, for instance, has spent billions on such work in recent years, she said. In 2010, NATO predicted in its New Strategic Concept that advancements in neuroscience would be part of a disruptive wave of discoveries that would “transform the technological battlefield.”


Given the enormous promise — and peril — at the heart of neuroscience research, Kosal believes it's crucial that researchers become more aware of the ways their research may be applied, and that scientists and policymakers work together to set boundaries and establish stronger oversight policies without unintentionally limiting basic research and economic potential.

“We need effective domestic and international measures that don’t hamper legitimate, creative research endeavors. The focus cannot be solely on the science and technology side. There is greater need for understanding of how and why these technologies might be misused and developing international collaboration at the policy-level can reduce that risk.”

Otherwise, according to Kosal, these powerful emerging technologies or misguided efforts to limit scientific research could end up causing more harm than good.

Kosal’s paper, “Security implications and governance of cognitive neuroscience: An ethnographic survey of researchers,” appeared in the spring 2015 edition of the journal Politics and the Life Sciences.

About Margaret E. Kosal

Margaret E. Kosal joined the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech in 2007. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in international security, terrorism, and technology policy, and she directs the Sam Nunn Security Program (SNSP), which brings together doctoral students from across the Institute to learn about and be effective leaders at the intersection of technology and national security. She also leads the 21st Century Security Challenges VIP Undergrad Research Team. She has written two books including Nanotechnology for Chemical and Biological Defense (Springer Academic Publishers, 2009). She has received a patent, and has received research support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the U.S. Army, the National Science Foundation, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, among others. Kosal earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is also on faculty in the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech.