Neuroethics

Brain-Computer Interfaces: Futuristic Prospects and Ethical Dilemmas

Athena Yao


Abstract

As technology continues to advance at an unprecedented rate in our society today, we now have access to a multitude of new possibilities. One of these prospects is the development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), technology that enables direct communication between a machine and signals from the brain, thus enabling us to control our surroundings with a mere thought or communicate with others without having to say a word. At the same time, there are also many ethical implications to consider as we look into the future of humankind.

 

Introduction

What would it be like to be immersed in a virtual world, to be able to control your surroundings with merely a thought? How would it feel to operate a prosthetic limb, wheelchair, or cursor using just the signals from your brain? Would you be intrigued by the possibility of being able to communicate telepathically, or to enhance your cognitive abilities so that you’re even smarter than a computer? 

If these concepts fascinate you, you’re not alone. Throughout the past few decades, there has been a growing interest in the interaction between our brains and machines. It has  permeated our lives, from the books, films, and TV shows we enjoy to the advanced technology that may be available to us not very far into the future. For example, in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is fitted with a prosthetic hand that allows him to feel sensation as if he had a real limb [1]. Episode 2 of season 4 in the television series Black Mirror introduced a revolutionary child monitoring system called Arkangel, in which participants are given a neural implant that enables parents to monitor their children’s geolocation and medical state while also enabling them to track and censor their child’s vision to keep them from registering obscenity or stressful stimuli [2]. Taking things a step further, in Marie Lu’s 2017 book Warcross, gamers used NeuroLink, a brain-computer interface accessed via glasses or contact lenses, which implants into users’ brains and allows them to enter the virtual reality game of Warcross. However, the software holds a sinister side: NeuroLink can also manipulate people’s emotions and even their minds, helping to prevent violence and crime but also removing important aspects of free will [3]. 

Time and time again, the concept of brain-computer interaction and interface technology has proven intriguing, holding endless possibilities that advance ever-closer to becoming a reality. Put simply, brain-computer interface (BCI) is a set of technologies that enables direct communication between the signals from a person’s brain and a machine [4] . A BCI typically consists of sensors or ‘electrodes,’ which measure faint brain signals with the help of an amplifier, along with a computer to translate them into commands [5]. Brain-computer interfaces have various applications that allow us to enhance both ourselves and our perceptions of the world: from use in gaming and communication to memory enhancement and prosthetics [7]. As advancements continue to be made, it is necessary to consider the implications for ethics, neuroscience and our society at large.

Ethical and Social Implications

Consider the concept of virtual reality. The thought of being able to retreat into a fantastical world that bends to your mind’s will is thrilling. But what if the roles were switched, and the interface that read your thoughts in order to carry out your wishes advanced to be able to read your thoughts and alter your wishes? In another vein, perhaps we would lose a piece of control over our thoughts and actions. We have all thought about saying or doing something, yet refrained from actually acting. If a BCI device reads a thought and executes a harmful action that you would not normally have carried out, would you be completely responsible? Consequently, what would happen to your sense of responsibility, privacy, and autonomy as a person? 

Furthermore, take a moment to consider the idea of a BCI child-monitoring system, such as the one introduced in Black Mirror’s episode “Arkangel.” Parents would never have to worry again about their child’s whereabouts or safety, and missing child rates would drop tremendously. But this kind of brain-computer interface system also raises ethical questions of privacy and information sharing. Should parents be able to track their children’s every move and see through their eyes in the literal sense⁠—and even be able to censor their children’s vision without informed consent? On the other hand, what would happen if private, personal information falls into the wrong hands?

Recent advancements and initiatives bring up additional ethical considerations. In 2016, billionaire Elon Musk co-founded Neuralink, a neurotechnology company that aims to make devices to treat brain disease and damage while also developing technology for human enhancement. The company is currently working on BCI technology that could allow human brains to compete with artificial intelligence through linking them with computers without needing a physical connection {8]. The prospect is riveting, although it also results in ethical dilemmas about personhood and what it means to be human. Since BCIs allow your brain to connect so directly to a machine, should they be considered tools or a part of you? As noted by Burwell, Sample, and Racine, researchers at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute, “the Oxford English Dictionary defines a cyborg as ‘…a person whose […] capabilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by a machine; an integrated man-machine system [9].’” With this in mind, would a person augmented by BCI technology still be considered human?

 

Conclusion

The scenarios brought up in this article are just a few examples of the ethical dilemmas that we must consider as our society advances. Brain computer interfaces hold great potential, especially in the future of entertainment and in helping those with severe disabilities. Considering this potential and the ways in which they have already begun to improve lives today, it is clear that the strive for development will not end anytime soon. However, we must also recognize that these benefits are also accompanied by important ethical and societal challenges [10]. Thus, it is important that all stakeholders involved discuss the implications this technology could have for autonomy, privacy, legal and moral responsibility, and various other issues of ethics. This topic doesn’t just require the cooperation of legislators, ethicists, or neuroscientists; rather, it also necessitates the input of the public—and you—in consideration of the future of humankind.

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References

 

[1] Analog Devices Inc. (2016, April 26). From Star Wars to Real Life: New Prosthesis Transforms Lives. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601275/from-star-wars-to-real-life-new-prosthesis-transforms-lives/

[6] Chaudhary, U., Birbaumer, N. & Ramos-Murguialday, A. Brain–computer interfaces for communication and rehabilitation. Nature Reviews Neurology 12, 513–525 (2016) doi:10.1038/nrneurol.2016.113

[2] “Black Mirror" Arkangel. (2017, December 29). IMDb. Retrieved from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5709250/

[7] Kögel, J., Schmid, J. R., Jox, R. J., & Friedrich, O. (2019). Using brain-computer interfaces: A scoping review of studies employing social research methods. BMC Medical Ethics, 20(1). doi:10.1186/s12910-019-0354-1

[3] Lu, M. (2017). Warcross. London: Penguin Books Limited.

{8] Fourtané, S. (2018, September 2). Neuralink: How the Human Brain Will Download Directly from a Computer. Interesting Engineering. Retrieved from https://interestingengineering.com/neuralink-how-the-human-brain-will-download-directly-from-a-computer

[4] What is brain-computer interface (BCI)?. (March 2011). WhatIs.com TechTarget. Retrieved from https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/brain-computer-interface-BCI

[9] Burwell, S., Sample, M., & Racine, E. (2017). Ethical aspects of brain computer interfaces: A scoping review. BMC Medical Ethics, 18(1), 60. doi:10.1186/s12910-017-0220-y

{5] Shih, J., Krusienski, D., & Wolpaw, J. (2012). Brain-Computer Interfaces in Medicine. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 87(3), 268-279. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2011.12.008

{10] Eran Klein & C.S. Nam. (2016). Neuroethics and brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), Brain-Computer Interfaces, 3:3, 123-125, doi: 10.1080/2326263X.2016.1210989



    Athena Yao

    Athena Yao


    Hey! I'm Athena Yao and I'm a rising senior from Long Island, New York with a passion for neuroscience and psychology. I would describe myself as an avid reader, runner, and artist as well as an advocate for mental health awareness and females in STEM.