Science and Society


    Director Dr. Michele Farisco

    Main research lines

    Biogem Science and Society Unit is part of two European projects: the Human Brain Project, specifically to the research groups about consciousness, artificial intelligence (AI), and neuroethics; the project “Counterfactual Assessment and Valuation for Awareness Architecture” (CAVAA). The Unit is also part of the Cost Action CONNECT about the connection between cognitive decline and chronic kidney disease.

    The Human Brain Project, included within the FET Flaghip projects, started in 2013 and will end in 2023. The CAVAA project, coordinated by the Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands, has been selected within the EIC Pathfinder Challenges 2021 “Awareness Inside” call, and will end in 2026. The COST Action CONNECT is an international network involving researchers and clinicians from different fields.

    The Biogem Science and Society Unit, in particular, in collaboration with philosophers, cognitive and computational neuroscientists, and researchers in AI and robotics, is devoted to the theoretical and ethical analysis of consciousness and related disorders (coma, vegetative state, minimally conscious state) and of the possibility of developing an artificial consciousness.

    In addition to the study of consciousness, the Science and Society Unit is developing a reflection about neuroethics as a specific discipline. This work resulted in the refinement of the definition of “fundamental neuroethics”, as well as in the analysis of ethical and social impacts of AI. The research activities, multidisciplinary in nature, are conducted in collaboration with internationally recognized researchers. 

    Projects in progress:

    • Definition of criteria for a more reliable diagnosis of disorders of consciousness (coma, vegetative states, minimally conscious states): the Science and Society Unit is coordinating a multidisciplinary work involving 15 researchers (cognitive, computational, and clinical neuroscientists) from different European centres
    • Survey about the application of recent guidelines on disorders of consciousness: the Science and Society Unit is coordinating a survey about the application of recent guidelines on disorders of consciousness released by the European Academy of Neurology and the American Academy of Neurology in in collaboration with the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research. The survey involved 216 clinicians from Europe, US, Asia, and Africa. Analysis of results is currently in progress.
    • Conceptual and ethical analysis of AI: the Science and Society Unit is coordinating a work on some conceptual aspects and related ethical impact of AI (particularly Machine Learning and Deep Neuronal Network), with specific regards to its connection with neuroscience
    • Ethical and regulatory analysis of the clinical practice of kidney transplantation: the Science and Society Unit is coordinating an international survey about the connection between cognitive decline and chronic kidney disease as exclusion factor from kidney transplantation

     Main Scientific Collaborations

    • Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics, Uppsala University, Sweden;
    • The Coma Science Group, University of Liege, Belgium 
    • IRCCS Fondazione Don Gnocchi, Florence, Italy
    • International Brain Initiative (IBI)
    • International Neuroethics Society (INS)
    • International Brain Injury Association (IBIA)

    More recent publications

    Internal seminar

    MICHELE FARISCO PhD, Are you conscious? Looking for reliable indicators
    MICHELE FARISCO PhD, Are you conscious? Looking for reliable indicatorsMonday 11th October
    Assessing consciousness in other subjects and/or agents (both human and non-human, especially if non-verbal) is an increasingly urgent task. In these two papers, I have recently contributed to elaborate indicators of consciousness in behaviourally unresponsive patients, animals, and intelligent systems, also analyzing related ethical issues. Starting from a characterization of consciousness as a “multimodal situational survey”, we applied an inside-out approach: how can the features of conscious experience, correlating to mechanisms inside the brain, be logically coupled to externally observable (“outside”) properties? Instead of proposing criteria that would each define a “hard” threshold for consciousness, we outline six indicators: (i) goal-directed behavior and model-based learning; (ii) anatomic and physiological substrates for generating integrative multimodal representations; (iii) psychometrics and meta-cognition; (iv) episodic memory; (v) susceptibility to illusions and multistable perception; and (vi) specific visuospatial behaviors. Rather than emphasizing a particular indicator as being decisive, we propose that the consistency amongst these indicators can serve to assess consciousness in other subjects/agents. The application of these indicators to the particular case of patients with disorders of consciousness (i.e., vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, minimally conscious state, and cognitive-motor dissociation) will likely inspire new strategies for assessing pressing ethical issues.

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