On the ethics of machine learning applications in clinical neuroscience

By Philipp Kellmeyer

Dr. med. Philipp Kellmeyer, M.D., M.Phil. (Cantab) is a board-certified neurologist working as postdoctoral researcher in the Intracranial EEG and Brain Imaging group at the University of Freiburg Medical Center, German. His current projects include the preparation of a clinical trial for using a wireless brain-computer interface to restore communication in severely paralyzed patients. In neuroethics, he works on ethical issues of emerging neurotechnologies. He is a member of the Rapid Action Task Force of the International Neuroethics Society and the Advisory Committee of the Neuroethics Network.
What is machine learning, you ask? 
As a brief working definition up front: machine learning refers to software that can learn from experience and is thus particularly good at extracting knowledge from data and for generating predictions [1]. Recently, one particularly powerful variant called deep learning has become the staple of much of recent progress (and hype) in applied machine learning. Deep learning uses biologically inspired artificial neural networks with many processing stages (hence the word “deep”). These deep networks, together with the ever-growing computing power and larger datasets for learning, now deliver groundbreaking performances at many tasks. For example, Google’s AlphaGo program that comprehensively beat a Go champion in January 2016 uses deep learning algorithms for reinforcement learning (analyzing 30 million Go moves and playing against itself). Despite these spectacular (and media-friendly) successes, however, the interaction between humans and algorithms may also go badly awry.

The software engineers who designed ‘Tay,’ the chatbot based on machine learning, for instance, surely had high hopes that it may hold its own on Twitter’s unforgiving world of high-density human microblogging.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.