Of all the advanced technologies being developed, one of the most fascinating and frightening is the brain-computer interface. They’re fascinating because we still have so much to learn about the human brain, but scientists are already able to unlock certain parts of it. And they’re scary because of the sinister possibilities of being able to influence, read, or hijack other people’s minds.
But the worst-case scenarios played out in science fiction are only one side of the coin, and brain-computer interfaces could also be a tremendous boon to humanity — if we create, manage, and regulate them properly. In a panel discussion at South by Southwest this week, four experts in neuroscience and computing discussed how to do it.
Panelists included Ben Hersh, an interaction designer at Google; Anna Wexler, assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania; Afshin Mehin, founder of a creative studio called Card79 that helps companies shape the future; and Jacob Robinson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University and co-founder of Motif Neurotech, a company developing minimally invasive electronic therapies for mental health.
“This is an area that has a lot of potential for good, and there’s a lot we don’t know yet,” Hersh said. “It’s also an area that has a lot of expectations that we’ve inherited from science fiction.” In his opinion, mind control for good isn’t just a possibility, it’s a must.
The mysterious brain
Of all the organs in our body, the brain is by far the most complex – and the one we know the least about. “Two people can perceive the same stimuli and have very different subjective experience, and there are no real rules to help us understand what translates your experience of the world into your subjective reality,” Robinson said.
But, he added, if we approach the basic aspect of what happens in our brain, it’s governed by physical processes. Could it be possible to control aspects of the brain and our subjective experiences with the precision we have in fields like physics and engineering?
“Part of the reason we struggle with treating mental illness is that we don’t have a basic understanding of what leads to these disorders,” Robinson said. “But we know these are network-level issues … We’re starting to connect to the networks underlying these types of conditions and help restore them.”
Elon Musk’s Neuralink has brought BCIs into the public eye more than ever, but there has been a market for consumer neurotechnology since the mid-2000s. Electroencephalography (EEG) uses electrodes placed on the head to record basic measurements of brain wave activity. Consumer brain stimulation devices are marketed for cognitive enhancement, such as: B. to improve focus, memory or attention.
More advanced neural interfaces are being used as assistive technology for people with conditions like ALS or paralysis, helping them communicate or move in ways they otherwise couldn’t: translate thoughts into text, movement, speech, or written sentences. A brain implant has been able to alleviate treatment-resistant depression through small, targeted doses of electrical stimulation.
“Some of the things that are coming are really extraordinary,” Hersh said. “People are working on therapies where electronics are implanted in the brain and can help manage diseases that are beyond the reach of modern medicine.”
That sounds pretty good, so what could go wrong? Well, unfortunately many. The idea of someone tapping into your brain and being able to control it is terrifying, and we’re not just talking about dramatic scenarios like The Matrix; What if you had a brain implant for medical use, but someone could subtly influence your decisions about the products or services you buy? What if a record of your emotional state was shared with someone you didn’t want, or your private thoughts were made public? (I know what you’re thinking: “Wait – isn’t that what Twitter is for?”)
Even tools with positive intent can have unwanted effects. Mehin’s company created a series of video vignettes that envisioned what BCI technology could do in everyday life. “The scenarios we envisioned ranged from horrifying — imagine having an AI chatbot in your head — to actually useful, like being able to tell a friend how you’re feeling so they can can help you get through a difficult time.”
He shared that when a teacher showed the videos at a design conference that had students in the audience, he spoke up and said, “This is awful, kids will never be able to communicate with each other.” But then a student stood up and said, “We can’t communicate with each other anymore, that would actually be very convenient.”
Would you like to live in a world where we need brain implants to communicate our emotions to each other? Where you wouldn’t sit down and have coffee with a friend to talk about your career stresses or marital strife, would you just let them dive right into your thoughts?
No thank you.
A brain-computer interface utopia sounds like an oxymoron; The true utopia would be one in which we are healthy, productive, and happy without the need for invasive technology that taps into the networks that dictate how we think, feel, and act.
But the reality is that the state of mental health in the US is far from ideal. Millions of people suffer from conditions like PTSD, ADHD, anxiety and depression, and pharmaceuticals haven’t been able to find a great cure for any of them. Pills like Adderall, Xanax, or Prozac have unwanted side effects and don’t work at all for some people.
“One in ten people in the United States has a mental disorder that is not being effectively treated by their medications,” Robinson said. “Our hope is that BCIs could offer a 20-minute outpatient procedure that offers therapeutic benefits for conditions like treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, or ADHD that could last the rest of your life.”
He envisions a future where anyone, regardless of disability, can communicate quickly and seamlessly, and where BCIs actually let us give back some of the humanity that social media and smartphones have stolen from us. “Perhaps BCIs could help us rebalance the neural circuits we need to control our focus and mood,” he said. “We would feel better, do better and everyone could communicate.”
In the short term, technology will continue to advance most in medical applications. Despite the risks, Robinson believes we should continue to push BCI because it can help people.
“There is a risk that people see this vision of the dystopian future and decide to stop building these things because something bad could happen,” he said. “I hope we don’t do that. We should figure out how to move forward responsibly because there is a moral obligation to the people who need these things.”
Image source: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay