Brain-computer interfaces are entering the mass market. Their current uses are either benevolent or harmless and they open a wide range of fascinating opportunities. However, they also pose serious risks that need to be identified and handled for the future.
The company that has recently garnered media attention in this field is NeuroVigil. They used their iBrain device to help the well-known physicist and author Steven Hawking to communicate with a computer by thought. Hawking, who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease and is not able to type or speak, has developed his own solution that allows him to communicate with a computer by twitching his cheek. This device is still a bit faster than the iBrain, but NeuroVigil MD Philip Low hopes that it will eventually be possible to read out thoughts aloud. NeuroVigil has also made the news by concluding a contract with Roche, a major Swiss pharmaceutical company, to use the iBrain in clinical tests for evaluating drugs for neurological diseases.
The iBrain normally uses only one sensor to measure brain signals. This makes it easy to apply and NeuroVigil claims that its smart software which employs specialized algorithms (editor’s note: see http://www.pnas.org/content/105/26/9081.full) more than makes up for using only one channel. The EPOC device made by Emotiv, on the other hand, uses a multitude of sensors. Its neuro-headset looks like a fancy pair of earphones with extensions in all directions. These extensions pick up electrical signals that our brains produce while we are awake or asleep. Such measurements are by far not accurate enough to determine what individual nerve cells in our brain are doing. They are more like an athlete in a big sports stadium, who could not possibly hear what each viewer is saying, but who can nevertheless draw conclusions about the general mood by listening to which parts of the crowd make most noise. Users learn to concentrate on specific thoughts and the EPOC learns that the related “brain noise” corresponds to a certain command, such as moving the active object in a computer game to the left. Emotive has a strong presence in the computer games market. Users can move huge blocks on a virtual Stonehenge site, use brain signals to shoot fireballs or train their meditation skills. Emotiv also produces a Mind Workstation for research purposes.
NeuroVigil as well as Emotiv are engaged in sleep research and this is also the key competence of Zeo, which offers a wireless headband to monitor sleep patterns and improve wellbeing. The headbands talk to smartphones using a Bluetooth link. Zeo also offers the Bedside Sleep Manager, a comprehensive system that works without a smartphone. All the solutions described cost less than a smartphone and are therefore affordable for a wide range of consumers. The demand for the product is likely to be huge. While the number of serious computer gamers willing to wear a headset may be limited, there are several hundred million people with sleep problems. NeuroVigil furthermore wants to use the iPhone to map people’s mind while they sleep. The resulting signatures could then be used to diagnose neurological disorders such as Alzheimer, depression and autism, which will again increase the scope of potential users. An increasing number of people are keen to do their own health monitoring and new, inexpensive, wireless sensors and data processing by smart phone applets helps them do this. Cheap brain-computer interfaces fit squarely into this trend.
Beyond the health market beckons the lifestyle sector. An increasing number of people want to track their lives to learn more about themselves and to use that knowledge to improve themselves – or to have more fun. If a brain-computer interface can provide some measure of happiness, what activities make users most happy? Could it really be that the supposedly fulfilling work scores lowest and the scornfully lambasted TV soap scores highest? Which people make users relax and who makes them tense up? When the time spent with your life partner scores lowest, it is time for counselling. User should take their smart phones along – because chances are that councillors will soon learn to make sense of recorded brain signals. Brain-computer interfaces might also be used to derive mind signatures that summarise a personality – i.e. whether the user likes to take risks, is easily worried, does things at the last moment or plans them long in advance, would consider casual affairs or is serious about his relationships. As soon as these mind signatures become even moderately meaningful, people might use social networks to look what others of “their kind” are up to, in which jobs they are most successful, what makes them most happy and how they cope with problems. Naturally, this will provide excellent opportunities for dating and making friends and entice another sector of the population to use brain-computer interfaces.
The most common use might turn out to be the one that Stephen Hawking is aiming at – a simple equivalent of writing text and clicking with a mouse. Once virtual reality (VR) glasses look just like normal reading glasses, people will want to interact with the virtual environment without pressing buttons or irritating people around them by mumbling commands into a voice interface. Brain computer links, preferably integrated into the VR glasses, would be perfect. Imagine a business traveller who is completely lost in a foreign city and thinks: “Show me the way to our hotel”. His mobile phone decodes the message, uses a GPS to determine his current position and a map to plan the route. His VR glasses show a green line on the road and he simply follows it while continuing the conversation with his business associates. In the lobby he is enthusiastically greeted by a stranger. He thinks: “Who is that?” while looking at him. Face recognition and a database look-up instantly provide the name on his VR glasses, just in time to address the person correctly. In the following sales discussion, he has all the relevant figures ready, because mind queries make them instantly visible to him. Such systems offer better performance at work and in private life and once they actually work, few will want to miss out. The vast majority of professionally active people will then use a brain-computer interface of some form.
When the assumptions made thus far are correct, it will not take long until most people will be connected most of the time to a set of devices that can read their thought processes and emotions and record what they do and say to whom at the same time. This will generate data of a new quality. Current investigators might, for example, use banking records to find out when the person they observe bought a specific book. They might then sift through recorded telephone conversations and social network data and catch a few snippets of his opinion about that book and draw some conclusions. Future investigators, with information from brain computer interfaces at their fingertips, might be able to determine for every single sentence in that book what the person felt and thought while reading it, whether he agreed with the concept expressed and whether it was the ethical aspect, the formal logic or simply the style of writing that shaped his opinion. Furthermore, collecting this information will not be expensive. The users will pay for the devices that collect it, ensure that it is collected and eagerly send it on to numerous places on the internet, which will make it hard to protect.
Detailed knowledge of a person’s mental processes not only allows conclusions of what he has done and what he is doing right now. It also allows conclusions of what he would be likely to do in a given situation. A corrupt manager in a government organisation with access to this kind of information could, for example, determine who else in his organisation would be prepared to break the law to earn some extra income. He could build up a network of corrupt employees with little risk. He could even get them to do rather daring things by revealing his own mind signature to assure them that he is indeed just greedy and power-hungry and not an undercover policeman. A spy could use such information to determine which employees of a defence contractor would be prepared to pass on confidential information – may it be for ideological reasons or for a fee. Defence contractors will be inclined to use the same technology to determine potential leaks in advance. This type of information would also make it much easier for well-positioned, ambitious people to grab political power and hold on to it.
Democratic governments will certainly attempt to get a grip on the problem by appropriate regulation. This may be helpful in some cases, but it will not be sufficient. Supporters of a future totalitarian regime might well be part of the government and use government regulations to further their own ends. Democratically-minded users would therefore be in a better position if the responsibilities for such risk assessment and handling were to be more widely spread over government organisations, private companies and foundations and if these units would have strong incentives to watch over each other.
Fortunately, users will have ways to bias social development in this direction. Once brain-computer interfaces have become commoditised products and similar services are available from several suppliers, users could start looking beyond price and quality and compare the social responsibility efforts of manufacturers, in particular their contribution to reducing the political risk of this technology. Manufacturers might initially avoid such activities. Who would start a discussion that links his main product to risks most users are not even aware of? But once such a discussion has been initiated by the users, thoughtful solution proposals might provide a marketing advantage. Manufacturers and their business partners might even be keen to implement their own proposals to pre-empt stifling government regulations.
Roland Schiefer holds an MSc in Biophysics and a PhD in Medicine and has applied himself to various projects in contract research and development. His book “All In The Mind” at amazon.com is also available in Kindle format.
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