Researchers at the Imperial College London (ICL) are warning that brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) may pose a number of quandaries. (At the end of this post, I have a little look into some of the BCI ethical issues previously explored on this blog.)
Here’s more from a July 20, 2021American Institute of Physics (AIP) news release (also on EurekAlert),
Surpassing the biological limitations of the brain and using one’s mind to interact with and control external electronic devices may sound like the distant cyborg future, but it could come sooner than we think.
Researchers from Imperial College London conducted a review of modern commercial brain-computer interface (BCI) devices, and they discuss the primary technological limitations and humanitarian concerns of these devices in APL Bioengineering, from AIP Publishing.
The most promising method to achieve real-world BCI applications is through electroencephalography (EEG), a method of monitoring the brain noninvasively through its electrical activity. EEG-based BCIs, or eBCIs, will require a number of technological advances prior to widespread use, but more importantly, they will raise a variety of social, ethical, and legal concerns.
Though it is difficult to understand exactly what a user experiences when operating an external device with an eBCI, a few things are certain. For one, eBCIs can communicate both ways. This allows a person to control electronics, which is particularly useful for medical patients that need help controlling wheelchairs, for example, but also potentially changes the way the brain functions.
“For some of these patients, these devices become such an integrated part of themselves that they refuse to have them removed at the end of the clinical trial,” said Rylie Green, one of the authors. “It has become increasingly evident that neurotechnologies have the potential to profoundly shape our own human experience and sense of self.”
Aside from these potentially bleak mental and physiological side effects, intellectual property concerns are also an issue and may allow private companies that develop eBCI technologies to own users’ neural data.
“This is particularly worrisome, since neural data is often considered to be the most intimate and private information that could be associated with any given user,” said Roberto Portillo-Lara, another author. “This is mainly because, apart from its diagnostic value, EEG data could be used to infer emotional and cognitive states, which would provide unparalleled insight into user intentions, preferences, and emotions.”
As the availability of these platforms increases past medical treatment, disparities in access to these technologies may exacerbate existing social inequalities. For example, eBCIs can be used for cognitive enhancement and cause extreme imbalances in academic or professional successes and educational advancements.
“This bleak panorama brings forth an interesting dilemma about the role of policymakers in BCI commercialization,” Green said. “Should regulatory bodies intervene to prevent misuse and unequal access to neurotech? Should society follow instead the path taken by previous innovations, such as the internet or the smartphone, which originally targeted niche markets but are now commercialized on a global scale?”
She calls on global policymakers, neuroscientists, manufacturers, and potential users of these technologies to begin having these conversations early and collaborate to produce answers to these difficult moral questions.
“Despite the potential risks, the ability to integrate the sophistication of the human mind with the capabilities of modern technology constitutes an unprecedented scientific achievement, which is beginning to challenge our own preconceptions of what it is to be human,” [emphasis mine] Green said.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Mind the gap: State-of-the-art technologies and applications for EEG-based brain-computer interfaces by Roberto Portillo-Lara, Bogachan Tahirbegi, Christopher A.R. Chapman, Josef A. Goding, and Rylie A. Green. APL Bioengineering, Volume 5, Issue 3, , 031507 (2021) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1063/5.0047237 Published Online: 20 July 2021
This paper appears to be open access.
Back on September 17, 2020 I published a post about a brain implant and included some material I’d dug up on ethics and brain-computer interfaces and was most struck by one of the stories. Here’s the excerpt (which can be found under the “Brain-computer interfaces, symbiosis, and ethical issues” subhead): … From a July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew for Nature Outlook: The brain,
“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. Electrodes had been implanted on the surface of her brain that would send a signal to a hand-held device when they detected signs of impending epileptic activity. On hearing a warning from the device, Patient 6 knew to take a dose of medication to halt the coming seizure.
“You grow gradually into it and get used to it, so it then becomes a part of every day,” she told Frederic Gilbert, an ethicist who studies brain–computer interfaces (BCIs) at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia. “It became me,” she said. [emphasis mine]
Gilbert was interviewing six people 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 psychologically1. Patient 6’s experience was extreme: Gilbert describes her relationship with her BCI as a “radical symbiosis”.
This is from another part of the September 17, 2020 posting,
… He [Gilbert] is now preparing a follow-up report on Patient 6. The company that implanted the device in her brain to help free her from seizures went bankrupt. The device had to be removed.
… Patient 6 cried as she told Gilbert about losing the device. … “I lost myself,” she said.
“It was more than a device,” Gilbert says. “The company owned the existence of this new person.”
It wasn’t my first thought when the topic of ethics and BCIs came up but as Gilbert’s research highlights: what happens if the company that made your implant and monitors it goes bankrupt?
If you have the time, do take a look at the entire entry under the “Brain-computer interfaces, symbiosis, and ethical issues” subhead of the September 17, 2020 posting or read the July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew.
Should you have a problem finding the July 20, 2021 American Institute of Physics news release at either of the two links I have previously supplied, there’s a July 20, 2021 copy at SciTechDaily.com