PhD on Brain-computer interfaces & the disruption of the concept of personhood

Updated: 4 months ago
Deadline: 30 May 2022

Department(s)

Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences


Reference number

V39.5624


Job description

As part of the inter-university research consortium, "Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies (ESDiT)" Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in collaboration with UMC Utrecht and
TU Delft are jointly seeking to hire a PhD student for a four-year project on “Brain-computer interfaces & the disruption of the concept of personhood.”

Over recent years, rapid progress has been made in neurotechnology, including the ability to record and directly stimulate neural activity, with the potential to create increasingly effective brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). Such emerging neuro-technologies encourage us to consider new ethical questions, and force us to question some of our ingrained ethical intuitions and concepts. Of particular interest is the question of  ‘what constitutes personhood’? In answering this question, Western philosophical approaches typically focus on notions such as autonomy, independence, unity, control and speech. These ontological framings of personhood quickly spill over into the ethical domain – shaping our views about concepts such as moral standing, responsibility, and what it means to have a life worth living.

Neurotechnologies, such as BCIs, encourage us to take up the question of personhood with a new sense of urgency, as intuitions about personhood are challenged by wholly novel case studies. BCIs use brain signals to control a computer, offering muscle-independent access to communication software. This has, for instance, allowed some advanced ALS patients with ‘locked-in syndrome’ to communicate even when speech or muscle-based control of speech-devices are no longer possible.

The case of BCIs used by locked-in patients appears to disrupt the central role that concepts such as independence, control, and ownership (of linguistic expressivity) play in defining and attributing personhood. Furthermore, because BCIs enable people who would otherwise be locked-in to give expression to their inner lives, BCI’s have also provided surprising insights into the value these patients still place upon their life, where this is typically underestimated by caregivers and society.

In light of these thorny ontological and ethical issues, the aim of this project is to answer the following research question: how do BCIs disrupt assumptions about where and how we can
(or even should) demarcate something as ontologically and ethically significant as personhood?
As a secondary objective, the project will contribute to new interdisciplinary approaches and methods at the intersection of STEM disciplines and ethics/philosophy. Moreover, insights gained from the project are likely to ethically inform the ongoing design of current and future BCI technologies. 

This PhD position represents a unique interdisciplinary collaboration between medical neuro-technologies (UMCU; prof.dr. Nick Ramsey; dr. Mariska van Steensel); ethics of technology
(TU Delft; dr. Janna van Grunsven) and psychology of human-technology interactions (TU/e; prof.dr. Wijnand IJsselsteijn). The PhD will be formally appointed within the Human-Technology Interaction group, which is part of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences at TU/e. The innovative potential of this research project is enormous, since the selected Ph.D. candidate would be embedded within Nick Ramsey’s research group at UMC Utrecht, working directly with those responsible for developing a world-wide first, fully implanted BCI for home use.

This PhD position will be part of the Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies (ESDiT) programme, a ten-year international research programme of seven academic institutions in the Netherlands that has started in January 2020. This programme has a combined budget of
€27 million, and is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) in the Gravitation funding scheme for excellent research, and by matching funds from the participating institutions. The duration is from January 2020 to December 2029.  The programme has the aim of achieving breakthrough research in at the intersection of ethics, philosophy, technology/engineering and social sciences, and to position its consortium at the top of its field internationally. A key objective is to investigate how new technologies challenge moral values and ontological concepts (like “nature”, “human being” and “community”), and how these challenges necessitate a revision of these concepts.  The programme includes four research lines, “Nature, Life and Human Intervention”, “The Future of a Free and Fair Society”, “The Human Condition” and “Foundations & Synthesis”.  This PhD position will be situated within the Human Condition research line.

More information about the research lines and the consortium as a whole is available here: www.esdit.nl


Job requirements

The successful candidate will have:

  • a master degree in philosophy, including bioethics, empirical philosophy, or ethics of technology, and/or a closely related social science discipline, such as theoretical psychology, by the time of appointment;
  • affinity and experience in applying empirical research, including the use of qualitative methodologies, such as interviews, observations, or ethnographic methods;
  • a clear, demonstrable affinity with clinical populations, and a particular interest/background in neuro-technologies and brain-computer interfaces the ability to work both independently and collaboratively, with good organisational and communication skills;
  • a creative and innovative approach to her/his work;
  • fluency in Dutch (as working with Dutch-speaking patients and their families will be required)
  • proficiency in spoken and written English.

Conditions of employment
  • A meaningful job in a dynamic and ambitious university with the possibility to present your work at international conferences.
  • A full-time employment for four years, with an intermediate evaluation (go/no-go) after nine months.
  • To develop your teaching skills, you will spend 10% of your employment on teaching tasks.
  • To support you during your PhD and to prepare you for the rest of your career, you will make a Training and Supervision plan and you will have free access to a personal development program for PhD students (PROOF program ).
  • PhD students are encouraged to spend a semester abroad, and a budget is available to cover expenses associated with such a research visit. In addition, (conference) travel budgets are available for the position.
  • A gross monthly salary and benefits (such as a pension scheme, pregnancy and maternity leave, partially paid parental leave) in accordance with the Collective Labor Agreement for Dutch Universities.
  • Additionally, an annual holiday allowance of 8% of the yearly salary, plus a year-end allowance of 8.3% of the annual salary.
  • Should you come from abroad and comply with certain conditions, you can make use of the so-called ‘30% facility’, which permits you not to pay tax on 30% of your salary.
  • A broad package of fringe benefits, including an excellent technical infrastructure, moving expenses, and savings schemes.
  • Family-friendly initiatives are in place, such as an international spouse program, and excellent on-campus children day care and sports facilities.

Information and application

Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e)
TU/e is a leading international university of technology specializing in Engineering Science & Technology. Through excellent teaching and research we contribute to progress in the technical sciences, to the development of technological innovations, and as a result to the growth of prosperity and welfare in the region and beyond. TU/e maintains close links with industry, healthcare and the building and logistics sectors.

The Human-Technology Interaction (HTI) group, part of the Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences, analyzes people’s interaction with technology with the aim to better understand and improve the match between technology and its users. A variety of technological innovations are studied, including human-centered artificial intelligence, social robotics, virtual environments, personal informatics, persuasive technology, recommender systems, and affective computing, in contexts of human health, wellbeing, education and social communication.

University Medical Center Utrecht Brain Center (UMCU-BC)
The RIBS lab (Registration and Imaging of Brain Systems; see: www.nick-ramsey.eu), led by Prof. dr. Nick Ramsey, is part of the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the University Medical Center Utrecht Brain Center. The main focus of the group is conducting neuroscience research towards novel methods of applying recorded brain signals to the benefit of people with neurological disorders. To that purpose, the group uses techniques such as intracranial EEG and fMRI and study the brain of healthy participants and people with conditions such as epilepsy and severe motor impairment. Our highly interdisciplinary group consists of research staff, postdocs, PhD students and several master students, who have a background in neuroscience, psychology, biology or physics and their own expertise in the research field.

More information
Do you recognize yourself in this profile and would you like to know more? Please contact
prof.dr. Wijnand IJsselsteijn, W.A.IJsselsteijn[at]tue.nl, and dr. Marieke van Steensel, M.J.vanSteensel[at]umcutrecht.nl.

For information about terms of employment, click here or contact Kim Spinder - van Puijenbroek (HR Advisor), pz.ieis[at]tue.nl, or +31 40 247 5102.

Please note that there are other vacancies in the Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies programme at different participating universities. In case several are of interest to you, we want to encourage you to apply to them simultaneously; see www.esdit.nl  

Are you inspired to know more about working at TU/e? Please visit www.tue.nl/jobs ;

Application

Everyone deserves to feel at home at our university. The TU/e, UMC Utrecht, and TU Delft, as well as the larger ESDiT research program encourage applications from women, scholars with disabilities, scholars from minority backgrounds, and other persons from groups that are currently underrepresented in philosophy and ethics. We welcome employees with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.
To apply, we invite you to submit a complete application by using the 'apply now'-button on this page.

  • a brief cover letter discussing what interests you about this position, how your background prepares you to carry out your proposed research plan, and any information about your circumstances relevant to assessing your suitability for the position.
  • a curriculum vitae,. Please include at the end the names and contact details of two referees whom we may contact;
  • an individual writing sample in English; this can be your master thesis, or a research paper you worked on individually.

Interviews will be scheduled in June 2022, and are likely to be conducted online (via Teams) –
at least for the first round.

We do not respond to applications that are sent to us in a different way.

Please keep in mind you can upload only 5 documents up to 2 MB each. If necessary please combine files.


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