HBP workshop on dual use at Karolinska Institute in 2018. Photo credits: HBP Education
HBP workshop on dual use at Karolinska Institutet in 2018. Photo credits: HBP Education

How to address issues of dual use in emerging neurosciences and neurotechnologies? This scientifically and practically challenging question has been on the agenda of the Human Brain Project’s (HBP) Ethics and Society team for almost ten years. In collaboration with researchers and experts within and beyond the HBP, we have undertaken research and engagement activities to advance a novel approach to dual use. In our recent article ‘Experimentation, learning, and dialogue: an RRI-inspired approach to dual-use of concern’ (Ulnicane et al 2022), we provide insights and reflect on lessons learned.

What is dual use?

Dual use seems to be a little-known term. In our conversations with researchers and technology experts within and beyond the project, we often encounter that many colleagues are not familiar with the term. Moreover, it is rather imprecise and contested concept. Traditionally, research and technologies have been considered to be dual use when they can have both civilian as well as military applications (Ulnicane 2020).

The European Commission has defined that dual use items are normally used for civilian purposes but might have military applications. This traditional approach to dual use as civil-military dichotomy is used in the European Union’s Framework Programme for research and innovation, which provides funding for the HBP. As all projects funded by this programme, the HBP has to comply with the regulation that all its work should have an exclusive focus on civil applications. This sets the HBP apart from other major brain initiatives, for example in the US, which do not have to comply with such regulations and might even receive defence research funding.

However, traditional understanding of dual use as civil-military dichotomy has been increasingly challenged, recognizing that it is important to consider beneficial and harmful uses of technology more broadly. This was one of the motivations for the HBP Ethics and Society team to go beyond legal compliance of just having exclusive focus on civil applications and to develop a broader approach to dual use. To do that, we undertook a range of research and engagement activities with researchers and experts as well as consulted citizens. These activities have led to our ‘Opinion on Responsible Dual Use’ (Aicardi et al 2018).

Broader understanding of dual use of concern

In the ‘Opinion on Responsible Dual Use’ (Aicardi et al 2018), we argue for the need to recognize political, security, intelligence and military uses of concern in the field of emerging neurosciences and neurotechnologies. We focus on the concept of dual use of concern, which refers to ‘neuroscience research and technological innovations, and brain inspired developments in information and communication technologies, for use in the political, security, intelligence and military domains, which are either directly of concern because of their potential for use in ways that threaten the peace, health, safety, security and well-being of citizens, or are undertaken without responsible regard to such potential uses’ (Aicardi et al 2018).

We recognize that establishing what counts as dual use of concern is far from straightforward. To do that, we suggest to use the concept of Responsible Research and Innovation that emphasize the need to align research and innovation with societal needs and expectations. That includes using the so-called AREA framework of anticipation, reflection, engagement and dialogue to identify and address complex issues of dual use of concern.

Video: Addressing dual-use research of concern in neuroscience and neurotechnology

Creating a ‘safe space’ and networks of mutual support

To follow-up on the Opinion, the HBP Directorate has established a project-wide Dual Use Working Group (DUWG). This group brings together neuroscientists, computer scientists, social scientists, humanities researchers, engineers, and managers for regular meetings to reflect on the ways in which any potential concerns can be identified and addressed. This is far from an obvious task because a lot of HBP’s work is fundamental research where potential concerns and applications are still difficult to anticipate. Regular meetings and ongoing interactions are important for this interdisciplinary group to develop shared vocabulary, understandings, sensitivities and culture, so that it can serve as a safe space where any potential concerns and questions can be brought up and discussed in a supportive environment.

In its work, the DUWG collaborates with many researchers and stakeholders within and beyond the HBP. We have a close collaboration with the HBP Ethics Rapporteur Programme. Most of the DUWG members are Ethics Rapporteurs and dual use of concern is one of the questions they reflect on in their annual ‘one-pager’ of ethical issues. Together with the HBP Education Programme we prepare dual use workshops for the HBP Student Conferences and Young Researchers events. In collaboration with the HBP Data Governance Working Group we discuss how to address dual use and misuse issues in data governance policies. These different and overlapping collaborations help to build a community and create networks of mutual support and learning. We are happy to have received interest and invitations to present our approach to dual use and provide training to other research projects and policy-makers.

Experimentation, learning and dialogue

Developing a broader approach to dual use that goes beyond legal compliance is a challenging task. In our recent article (Ulnicane et al 2022), we outline three lessons we have found crucial for this endeavour.

First, it is important to productively combine research and practice. Developing novel ideas and methods for identifying and addressing dual use has required interdisciplinary research on governance of emerging technologies, dual use and Responsible Research and Innovation. At the same time, our practical engagement has raised new questions for future research. Second, four RRI dimensions of anticipation, reflection, engagement and action have to be closely intertwined. Rather than being separate stages organized in a linear way, these four dimensions are overlapping and interlinked. Third, considering uncertainty of emerging technologies, it is important to take an open and flexible approach that enables experimentation, learning and dialogue. Rather than using checklists to a priori establish a list of concerns, it is important to have a continuous dialogue, as new technologies develop and novel questions emerge.

This is an ongoing work. Our future activities include a workshop ‘Responsible Brain Research: Addressing dual use of concern and misuse issues’ at the final HBP Student Conference in January 2023. Other activities are under preparation. If you have any questions and would like to join the conversation, please get in touch.

Dr. Inga Ulnicane is Senior Research Fellow at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. She chairs the HBP Dual Use Working Group


Aicardi, Christine, Bitsch, Lise, Bang Bådum, Nicklas, Datta, Saheli, Evers, Kathinka, Farisco, Michele, Fothergill, Tyr, Giordano, James, Harris, Emma, Jørgensen, Marie Louise, Klüver, Lars, Mahfoud, Tara, Rainey, Stephen, Riisgaard, Karen, Rose, Nikolas, Salles, Arleen, Stahl, Bernd, and Ulnicane, Inga. 2018. “Opinion on ‘Responsible Dual Use’ Political, Security, Intelligence and Military Research of Concern in Neuroscience and Neurotechnology.” Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4588601

Ulnicane, Inga. 2020. “Governance of Dual Use Research in the EU: The Case of Neuroscience.” In Emerging Security Technologies and EU Governance: Actors, Practices and Processes, edited by Antonio Calcara, Raluca Csernatoni, and Chantal Lavalée, 177-191. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429351846-12

Ulnicane, Inga, Tara Mahfoud and Arleen Salles. 2022. Experimentation, learning, and dialogue: an RRI-inspired approach to dual-use of concern. Journal of Responsible Innovation. https://doi.org/10.1080/23299460.2022.2094071

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