Schaub 4:00
Aaron Acierno ([email protected])
As humans, we are truly blessed to live in a
time such as this. Elements of science fiction seem
to have silently crept its way into some of our most
basic daily experiences. If you don’t believe me,
look around at some of the simplest miracles of
science like aviation, infrastructure and energy.
What truly makes engineering unique and
respectable profession, however, is that no matter
how far the boundaries of science has been pushed,
engineers believe that innovations can always be
more efficient and better structured. The future
looks incredibly bright considering the wondrous
strides engineers have made.
I consider it a personal obligation as a future
engineer to do whatever it takes it work towards a
brighter, more advanced future. As someone who
suffers from severe depression and generalized
anxiety, I find it extremely reassuring knowing that
engineers have innovated new ways in order to
fight the overwhelming grasp of mental illness.
One such treatment is Synchronized Transcranial
Magnetic Stimulation (sTMS), a technique that
utilizes pulses of magnetic energy to re-sync neural
activity in the brain and ultimately begin to cure
mental disabilities, a topic I described in my
previous essay. I consider this to be an absolutely
wonderful innovation because for perhaps one day
my illness can be tackled at the source once and for
all. Hearing stories like this gives me hope, and it
was one of the reasons that I wanted to be an
engineer in the first place.
However, what about when engineers push the
boundaries of science too far? Ethical conditions
are especially important in psychological studies
because they involve both humans and the “human
experience”. The human experience is what is
described as the psychological framework or
mindset that a human being uses in everyday and
essentially, what makes us a unique species. sTMS
treatment is wonderful in the sense that it provides
very limited alterations to human cognition and
experience, but what about more invasive
treatments, where do you draw the line? This is a
very difficult threshold to gauge, as ethics is often a
collaboration of several different points of views
and opinions. Though the line that separates
science from philosophy is vague, but most often
University of Pittsburgh, Swanson School of Engineering 1
there are signs of dishonesty that can be seen when
engineers are in obvious violation of ethical code.
In this respect, I find it important to consider two
distinct scenarios. One in which the engineer or
engineers are specifically and most likely
knowingly in violation of a Code of Ethics, and
other where the findings make the decision more
First, consider an engineer that is doing
research on a relatively new technology in
interfacing (CBI). While the engineer works with a
soldier who lost his arm in battle, the engineer
starts asking the patient to perform tasks that were
not originally part of the study. Tasks include using
additional technologies such as an electrode to
perform tasks on a computer program. Though the
technologies are in essentially the same, it is not
explicitly defined in the patient’s treatment
program. Would this engineer in violation of a
nationally recognized Engineering Code of Ethics?
In the second scenario, a group of engineers are
approved to work on the development of CBI.
Using these technologies, these engineers
successfully discover a way to implement a device
in the human brain that allows a remote source to
control certain cognitive functions, such as body
movement and sense perception. In fear, they
withhold the information from their supervisors. Is
this act of withholding information unethical in any
way? Using accredited and verified Codes of
Ethics from the disciplines of engineering and
psychology alike, it is possible to determine if what
the researchers did in these two situations were
ethical or not.
Before diving into any official documents
regarding the ethical guidelines as approved by
national boards of engineering, I believe it is
important to adequately describe the technology
that is presented in these situations. Over the past
decade, psychological engineering is best described
as a rapidly growing field, gaining steam due to the
wealth of knowledge and innovation. The primary
goal is to create a “harmony” between the human
brain and machine in order to produce a more
Aaron Acierno
controlled and user-friendly mental environment
[1]. With the customizability of computers, we are
able to create miracles such as virtual reality,
which combine technology and human cognition.
Using the most recent technologies, an
electroencephalograph (EEG) machine is able to
monitor where electrical pulses occur in the brain.
As mentioned prior, one of the newest and most
exciting innovations on the scene in engineer the
human brain is called computer-brain interfacing.
CBI is a technique where a device can be used to
simulate or manipulate patterns of neural activity in
the brain to alter cognition and emotion. Through
research, engineers have been able to recognize
patterns of brain activity when certain functions are
performed or senses activated. When this was first
discovered, it was truly an important step because
for the first time in human history, a bridge could
be made from the material world and the mental
realm. Now, using new techniques such as CBI,
that bridge could become a pathway to a
humanized regulation of the human experience.
Initially, small scale projects were conducted in
order to gauge the potential of CBI. These projects
included moving a mouse on a computer or
changing the channel on a television. After much
experimentation, the future of CBI seems
extremely bright. By analyzing individual’s neural
activity to certain cognition, pulses can be
administered to someone in a way such that a
certain sense or emotion can be felt. In a similar
way, by seeing which neurons are activated, a
computer can respond in a certain way. For
example, this gives people a second chance to
regain a part of their body through mechanical
prosthetics. In this respect, there is almost no end
to the possibilities of CBI. [3] What this means is
that one day in the future, complicated systems of
computerized information could be controlled and
processed by a single thought.
At this point, I would like to revisit the first
scenario as previously described, which analyzes
how an engineer might be in a breach of ethics
during the procedure of an experiment. In this first
scenario, a soldier that has returned from battle but
was required to have an arm amputation due to a
traumatic injury on the battlefield. Using the latest
technologies in CBI, an engineer is working with
this man so that he might regain his ability to use a
working arm once again. Following a procedure to
mentally implant a device in the grey matter of the
patient’s brain and a mechanical arm surgically
attached in place of his amputated one, he is told he
will be seen on regular appointments in order to
practice using his new device. During one of his
appointments during a meeting with the engineer as
part of his rehabilitation, however, the engineer
asks the patient to do tasks that the patient is
usually required. These include trying to control a
point of a screen to using brain activity and
monitoring brain activity during a series of games.
When the patient asks the engineer for the reason
behind the abrupt change in plans, the engineer
says that the reason is because he wants to “further
examine the patient’s neuronal activity patterns.”
Later, it is discovered that he did this in order to
gain an edge. He wished to obtain more
information regarding the application of CBI and
used his opportunity with a patient to do this. So,
by doing this, did the engineer violate a nationally
recognized Code of Ethics?
The Beautiful Brain
Sound simple? Not at all. In the adult human
body there are about 100 billion neural cells. These
cells are unlike the familiar spherical cells that are
present in other bodily organs. Rather, neurons
branch out like a tree and create a vast network
inside the human body. Neurons relate information
in a way akin to computers: binary succession.
When a neuron “fires”, it sends an electrical
impulse to its axion (the sending portion of a
neuron cell), which travels towards a neighboring
neuron’s dendrite (the receiving portion of a
neuron cell). These two portions are separated by a
synapse, a tiny gap between the two regions. When
the electric impulse reaches the synapse,
neurotransmitters are released from the axion
towards the neighboring dendrite through the
synapse. Neurotransmitters are proteins which give
instructions on what the next neuron should do,
which is either to “fire” or “don’t fire”. This means
that all cognition, mental processes, and brain
functions are controlled by each individual neuron
cell doing one of two actions. [2] Such a dynamic
network of cells makes the challenge of developing
a reliable framework for CBI even more difficult.
In fact, currently, one of the biggest issues with
CBI is even finding
The Potential of CBI
The Duties of an Engineer
Aaron Acierno
In this scenario, it isn’t entirely clear why the
engineer made the patient do the additional tasks,
but if we analyze a set of officially licensed
engineering Code of Ethics, we can see if what he
did was right or wrong. Examining the National
Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics,
we know for a fact that his initial work with the
patient was quite important. According to the
Fundamental Canons of the NSPE Code of Ethics,
engineers must “Hold paramount the safety, health,
and welfare of the public.” By working with the
soldier, he was able to give him a chance to regain
a sense of normalcy in his life. In a larger sense, as
the field of psychological engineering begins to
grow, it is more important than ever to begin
building a solid base in CBI technology. As a
reader, the field of psychological engineering may
seem like a foreign concept. Essentially,
psychological engineering began as a hybrid
between the two fields of medical psychology and
Psychologist” was recently acknowledged by the
American Psychological Association (APA), and
consequently does not currently have a specific
organization or Code of Ethics, so in order to
examine this specific situation, it would be best to
consider both the NSPE’s Code of Ethics and the
APA’s Code of Ethics. This ensures that any
situation that arises would satisfy a hybrid of both
disciplines. Revisiting the topic at hand, the
engineer seemed to be performing tasks that did not
coincide with the original treatment plan for the
soldier. From the APA standpoint, the use of
deception, or giving the patient false information
regarding treatment or experimentation, is not
necessarily a violation in itself. According to the
APA’s Code of Ethics, Code 6.15, “Psychologists
do not conduct a study involving deception unless
they have determined that the use of deceptive
techniques is justified by the study's prospective
scientific, educational, or applied value and that
equally effective alternative procedures that do not
use deception are not feasible.” [4] From this
perspective, it appears that the use of deception to
gain additional information with the CBI device
does not appear to have any increase in
experimental value. There really is no reason to
deceive the patient, and therefore this engineer
would most likely be in violation of the APA’s
Code of Ethics. In another examination,
considering the NSPE’s Code of Ethics, the use of
deceptive acts is outlined in the Fundamental
Canons. According to the 5th Fundamental Canon
of the NSPE’s Code of Ethics, “Deceptive acts
shall be avoided.” [5] In this situation, the engineer
was not truthful towards the soldier he was treating
and therefore he would be in violation of the code.
It might be difficult to imagine, but within the
next ten years, it could be entirely possible that
human emotions and cognition could be able to be
processed by CBI. If human neural patterns can be
analyzed, they can be replicated and manipulated
by these devices. What troubles certain people is
that until very recently in human history, machine
and mind were two completely separate domains in
human civilization. In many religions and societies,
the human consciousness is sacred. The human
experience is unique because no other living
creature in the known universe has the brain
capacity or abilities humans have. [6] Not
surprisingly, many people are opposed to the idea
of using CBI as a method of treatment, as it
overrides the natural progression of human
thought. Despite the fact that it provides a
wonderful opportunity to people who have lost
limbs due to accidents, war, or disease, when the
order is reversed, it can be a scary violation of
natural human rights. Though it is far from a
national accredited Code of Ethics, the United
Nations “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”
defines in Article 18 that all people are entitled to
the freedom of though and opinion. It reads,
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion; this right includes freedom
to change his religion or belief, and freedom.”
Considering the wording, it would appear that the
use of CBI to influence human behavior would be
in clear violation of the UN’s Declaration of
Human Rights. [7] Though it is quite far from any
recognized Engineering Code of Ethics, the reason
that I referred to this document over anything from
the APA’s or NSPE’s Code of Ethics is this
specific instance is nowhere outlined. In the case,
that this becomes a utilized technology worldwide,
it appears most likely that a world government
association will take a stand, since such an
elementary human right is being jeopardized [8]. In
my own personal opinion, this could become an
issue much like that of atomic weapons or chemical
warfare. When such a powerful tool can be used on
humans, it reaches a point where specific rules
must be made in order to control it. That is why I
chose to examine two examples, one of them which
consider this particular perspective.
Aaron Acierno
The first scenario was an example of impulse
impacted “from” the brain to control external
devices, but the second scenario considers external
control to impart impulses on the brain. Recall that
in the second scenario, a group of engineers
perfected the use of external control on electrodes
inside of a patient’s brain to control thoughts,
feelings, and cognition. For example, by imputing a
command on a prompt, it stimulates the brain in
such a way that the patient is “hypnotized” to
perform a task. The engineers who worked with
this project considered this discovery too
frightening and refused to tell their superiors of the
progress they made. Is this action a violation of the
NSPE’s Code of Ethics? The answer is yes. When
referring to the NSPE’s Code of Ethics, Rules of
Practice Article 4 states, “Engineers shall disclose
all known or potential conflicts of interest that
could influence or appear to influence their
judgment or the quality of their services.” [5]In this
case it is extremely important that the engineers
report the information to an authority to gauge how
future action will be taken regarding the
discoveries made. Though the implications of the
discovery might be great, it is vital that the
information be disclosure to the “correct”
personnel. Giving information to a third party
would violate The NSPE’s Code of Ethics
Professional Obligations Article 4, which states,
“Engineers shall not disclose, without consent,
confidential information concerning the business
affairs or technical processes of any present or
former client or employer, or public body on which
they serve.” Though they might believe it could be
beneficial to the general public to either not
disclose this revolutionary information or disclose
it to a third party, there is a process which must
brain. It really is a touchy subject when you are
considering the absolute separate between the two
domains of mind and machine. It is my hope that
one day a boundary can be firmly established so
incidents like that in scenario 2 will never actually
It really is an exciting time in human history.
Using such new and innovative technologies to
impact the very basis of human experience is truly
thrilling. The reason I chose this topic in particular
was due to how close of a connection I feel to the
topic. Having suffered from depression every day
for the last 5 years, I see innovations like these and
see how exciting the future can be. However, it is
also imperative to understand that engineers must
act in a certain way to maintain a sense of “right”
and “wrong” in their practice. That way, we know
for a fact that these incredible innovations are
being created with a peace of mind that no
sacrifices are being made.
[1] G. Edlinger. (2011). “Brain Computer
Interface.” Springer Handbook of Medical
[2] “How do neurons work?” University of Bristol.
[3] E. Grabianowski. “How Brain-computer
Interfaces Work”. How Stuff Works. (Website).
[4] “Ethical Principles and Psychologists and Code
of Conduct.” American Psychological Association.
[5] “NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers.” National
Society of Professional Engineers. (Document).
[6] B. Beyer. (August 18, 2011). “The Human
[7] “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
[8] Philosophy of Cognitive Science. (August 16 th,
2013) “26. Cognitive Science, Philosophy in
Artificial Intelligence: Human Mind vs. Turing
It is unfortunate that I was unable to elaborate
further on the discussion of testing the practical
limits of CBI technology. Until the technology has
been further tested, perfected, and commercialized,
it appears as if it is not going to be an issue for
quite some time. In my own personal opinion, I
believe that within the next five years, a
Psychological Engineering will be universally
recognized occupation by the United States
Department of Labor, and as a result a Code of
Ethics will be formed. Once we reach that point,
then we will have some sort of idea where to go
regarding the future of engineering the human
Aaron Acierno
“Broadening the Applicability of Clinical
Research” Online Ethics Center for Engineering.
“Case Study 2: The Milikan Case – Discrimination
Versus Manipulation of Data.” Online Ethics
Center for Engineering. (Ethics Case Study).
“Reporting your Team Assignment” Stanford
I would like to thank Dave Early for giving me the
motivation to work my absolute hardest.

the ethical boundries of the human experience