Have you ever thought of something on your way to work and as soon as you enter the office, switch on your Instagram account and scroll through your feed, see an ad about it? Spooky, right? Not really.
Targeted marketing is starting to become a daily occurence and what used to seem like witchcraft, is actually the result of an amalgamation of practices and actions. Without realising, our everyday life has become a trail littered with breadcrumbs of personal information, likes, preferences and habits.
Out credit cards are used online, we express interest in clothes, brands, news outlets, opinions and so many other areas of life. You don’t need to comment or literally express yourself online. A single like or even the way you navigate between pages, can tell interested companies and search algorithms all they need to know about you.
Without uttering a single word, we have all created a digital avatar that is profiled after our choices. The more you interact with the web, the more detailed that avatar/profile gets. The invasion of our privacy is at an all-time high and it seems like there’s nothing that can be kept as a secret from the “Big Brother”.
Luckily, we have our thoughts. The safest place on earth. Our vault. Our safehouse. The place where we can be ourselves without judgement and without fearing someone can steal our deepest and truest desires. George Orwell said it best in his all-time classic novel 1984: “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.” Was he right? It seems that the answer is no.
Welcome to the Brain Computer Interface era: a time where decoding, translating and deciphering neural signals into actions is made possible. Yes, you heard that right. Whilst what we’re describing sounds like the script of a post-apocalyptic future where machines are taking over the human brain, the reality is that technology is already invading the last frontier of privacy we hold. Our brains and thoughts will be open to the public sooner than what you think.
Where are we in terms of progress? What’s the ceiling and what are the challenges facing this new technology?
Brain Computer Interface: The Basics
Whilst still in the early stages of development, BCI devices are already making their appearance and are showcasing their mind-boggling potential. BCI devices will essentially turn our thoughts into action through an ecosystem of smart tech. Let’s demonstrate with an example.
You’re on your way home and want to switch on the boiler for a nice, relaxing shower as soon as you arrive. With the current state of affairs, there is an app on your phone that allows you to switch on the boiler with a few clicks. In a fully optimized BCI universe, all you have to do whilst driving is…think about it. We’re not there yet but the pace with which technology is developing and growing we’re not very far either.
Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Kent and Wichita State University published a study outlines the creation of a wireless and portable brain–machine interface (BMI) to control a wheelchair, a small robotic vehicle, and a computer device.
In April this year, research from the University of California, San Francisco on the results of an attempt to turn neural activity into speech using BCI tech that’s powered by deep learning algorithms.
“For the first time, this study demonstrates that we can generate entire spoken sentences based on an individual’s brain activity,” said Chang, a professor of neurological surgery and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neuroscience.
Are our sources too academic? Maybe you’re right. Let’s resort to something more commercial, something more recognizable. He’s an excerpt from the blog of a company you might have heard before answering to the name Facebook.
“Imagine a world where all the knowledge, fun, and utility of today’s smartphones were instantly accessible and completely hands-free. Where you could spend quality time with the people who matter most in your life, whenever you want, no matter where in the world you happen to be. And where you could connect with others in a meaningful way, regardless of external distractions, geographic constraints, and even physical disabilities and limitations.”
In our earlier “Under the Microscope: Elon Musk” blog, we investigate one of the brightest minds of our generation. A mogul, an inventor, an entrepreneur and an overall genius, Elon Musk has his fingers in many pies. From building the coolest and smartest automobiles and space travelling to solving LA’s traffic issue, he’s surely one of the busiest men on planet earth.
Guess where this is going? Yeah, one of the many “pies” he’s involved with is BCI technology. Here’s an excerpt from our blog:
“If you think that Musk is going to stop coming up with mind-blowing ideas, you probably haven’t been paying attention. His latest fascination is related to the human brain. Neuralink Corporation is an American neurotechnology company that basically aims to create chips that are inserted into the human brain and are connected with your mobile phone.
Disclaimer: This is not the description of a new Terminator movie. You can watch the keynote of the Neuralink Launch Event here and learn everything there is to know about the company responsible for developing brain-machine interfaces.”
Laws & Privacy
You only come to realise that the post-apocalyptic scenario we’ve described earlier is actually a developing reality when governments are starting to draft policies and law surrounding our brain. “Neurorights” are a real thing and the debate around the challenges of a brain computer interface-led world is severe.
The main question was put forward by one of the most prominent figures in the area of neuroethics, Marcello Ienca, a researcher at ETH Zurich:
“Determining whether, or under what conditions, it is legitimate to gain access to or to interfere with another person’s neural activity.”
In a blog post dating back to 2017, Ienca puts forward the need for neurorights and alarms the masses on the possible pitfalls and severe challenges attached to the miracle of “tech mind-reading”. Ienca is not alone in this movement for protecting our brains from a “hostile takeover”. Chilean Neuroscientist Rafael Yuste’s plea for a serious government involvement in the matter was successful as the country is looking at two bills that would make brain data protection a human right.
The unrest amongst government and organisations is real as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is gearing towards regulation alongside other main European countries. Australia is already champing at the bit with the federal government already announcing new protections and penalties under the Privacy Act in the face of an “explosion in major social media and online platforms that trade in personal information”.
Data is the most expensive and valued commodity on the planet and the last place where we can safely hide it is being broken in. Countries are merely reacting to the severity of the situation.
The right to allow or refuse the use of BCI should not even be a question, right? It’s common sense and a basic human right. In principle and in theory, yes. There’s no way there should be laws or discussions as to whether you choose to allow a machine to decode your thoughts. Like in most cases though, reality and theory are so far apart from each other.
As per an article in the South China Morning Post, the country is “…is mining data directly from workers’ brains on an industrial scale”, claiming they monitor depression, anxiety, rage, or fatigue. The US army is funding “…mind-reading helmet that may let soldiers telepathically control robots or drones and could even give the gift of sight to the blind.” How is this related to the right of choice you might ask? Closely related.
Because the aforementioned examples show the ambiguous environment created by companies, employers and parties that are interested in deriving information from people. In the China example, people are giving access to their brains on the altar of health and findings that could help the entire human kind. The US example creates an environment where soldiers are made to believe that engaging with a Brain Computer Interface device would enhance their performance and give them a competitive advantage in the battlefield. See how the right to say no to a BCI device accessing your brain is not that simple after all?
And then what about hacking? Can you imagine the repercussions of having someone hack your brain? The same way a machine is hacked to steal passwords, private data or money, BCI devices can be hacked only the content this time is a tad more sensitive.
Let’s say hacking is taken care of. Let’s say multiple layers of privacy and controls are put in place to make it virtually impossible for hackers to access our brain. What about the ethical questions raised around the use of this technology? What happens when people and Brain Computer Interface machines share a life? What about empowering with your thoughts? At which points does the machine become smart and adaptive enough to start acting on your behalf? Who is who and who is the author of the decision?
These might sound like highbrow questions that belong to a research paper but reality will have you believing otherwise. Frederic Gilbert, a student of brain–computer interfaces (BCIs) at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia interviewed six patients who had participated in the first clinical trial of a predictive BCI to help understand how living with a computer that monitors brain activity directly affects individuals psychologically.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
“It becomes part of you,” Patient 6 said, describing the technology that enabled her, after 45 years of severe epilepsy, to halt her disabling seizures. “You grow gradually into it and get used to it, so it then becomes a part of every day,” she told Frederic. “It became me,” she said.
Whilst BCI is used for a noble cause in this case, you can already see the dangers of codependency and symbiosis between man and machine.
Here you have it. The Brain Computer Interface rundown with the current state, the ceiling and the challenges associated with it. We’re still in the early stages of this experiment but as you can see it’s growing now and it’s growing fast. Watch this space as we will definitely be revisiting this subject matter.