Brain-Computer Interface: The Connected

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Future and emerging technologies are funny things – humans sometimes see them coming from a mile away, other times they smack us right in the face.  Part of the drive comes from the innate nature for us to dream and be creative which inherently leads to concepts like brain computer interfaces (BCI) – communication pathways between our brain and an external device such as a computer.  Since humans began dreaming, we often have used the various aspects of thought and desire to develop technology and the future.  This genre of dreams, the sci-fi and fantasy realm, meant that technology like BCIs are ingrained in our minds through famous literature, movies, and imagination (others include flying, super humans, and many more).

Let’s take a dive into BCIs – BCIs are a little bit more complex than our day dreaming would suggest.  In reality, research began on BCIs in the 1970s under a University of California, Los Angeles by a man named Dr. Jacques J. Vidal.  Using a National Science Foundation Grant, Dr. Vidal authored two main articles (Real-Time Detection of Brain Events in EEG and Toward Direct Brain-Computer Communication) that spurred the movement of BCI development which led to other state agencies, and of course the federal government, getting involved trying to create the next greatest thing.  Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) took over and awarded a contract to continue BCI research in the hopes of culminated what the military always likes to call, “The Super Soldier”.

Yet little progress has been made until recent years in regard to BCIs.  The main reason being, although every human has a brain that, we apparently know nothing about this crucial feature.  Every step forward we find an equal step backward in a world of ever growing complexities, but progress is still made toward what our “dreams” for the technology are.  Recently with upgrades to various imaging tools and technological breakthroughs for extremely accurate measurement tools, BCIs once again are on the move.  Where should we begin in our quest to make ethical BCIs?  When we have technology that allows paralyzed people to once again walk, what do we do to prevent the terrible applications that people will likely try?

Luckily for humanity, philanthropy and giving became a dominant driving force in the development of BCIs instead of the military system of, well, military.  Over the course of the decades between the 70s and now, the medical world continued to research BCIs for medical purposes focusing on communicating with prostheses, restoring sight, hearing, and movement focusing on imaging the brain to detect the correlation between brain image and associated movement/sound/etc.  As medicine advances, BCIs could play an integral part in restoring lost functionality for humans and help increase productivity and ease of use in our day-to-day lives.  However, let us take a step back and dive briefly into the downsides to BCIs and even if we may not be able to visualize them now, they will exist.

For instance, if a physical device is implanted inside the user, then a litany of medical related problems can occur such as infection or malfunction.  From a non-physical standpoint, speech may no longer be used for that person simply because that person refuses to communicate with speech and instead thinks and has another entity such as a computer take over the communication.  Another problem may be the hidden side effects that could over work a human’s brain: reduction of ethical and moral thought, the fall back to logic and mathematical based thought, and a massive bloat of data that people are unable to comprehend – what happens when these worlds collide?  To combine the two sides an example might be the military and the potential of controlling multiple drones at the same time for militaristic purposes or making decisions on the battlefield and communicating to soldiers (i.e. removing ethical thought from decision making).  Finally, food for thought here, for the most part we interact with our computers via our peripheral nervous system, our fingers, whereas a BCI would interact with our central nervous system, is that too close for comfort?

The good news is the people on the cutting edge of brain computer interfaces are thinking ahead.  At the fifth International Brain-Computer Interface Meeting a group of scientists and scholars decided that there needs to be a body to oversee the various aspects of this technology.  As a result, The BCI Society was established in 2015 to oversee operations and provide information to every group about BCIs.  Furthermore, government groups such as the National Institute of Health and The Food and Drug Administration are getting involved early recognizing the potential impact BCIs might have and private groups such as biomedical research websites, technology blogs, etc. are also raising awareness (and most include sections about ethical questions!).  All of these are important steps in decision making for BCIs as we move from assistive to augmentative.

Parting Wisdom:

Where should you begin?  Well, you should have discussions.  Talk with friends, peers, colleagues, family members, and even your dog about BCIs.  Think big, think small, be creative, and be dull, but remember to open, to think, and to be optimistic.  This is a tough question with only one solution, jump right in!

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Extra Examples:

It’s Now Possible to Telepathically Communicate with a Drone Swarm – DefenseOne

Yikes, I read a title like this and immediately I start thinking about the implications.  One problem with drones and UAVs today is that the Federal Aviation Administration requires you to fly the drone in line of sight and when someone breaks the law, law enforcement generally tracks the person down by finding the controller.  If that person was controlling the drone with their mind, what do we do now?  Sensory attributes, specifically touch, slow human reactions down and as a general statement, your mind thinks a lot faster than you can portray and do thoughts.  If you are controlling a drone, what happens when things go wrong?  What happens when the same things go wrong that much faster with the use of a BCI?  The are important questions we need to think about now while BCIs are still slower than a natural human being.

Brain-Computer Interfaces Are Already Here – Bloomberg

Titles like this are what ethical processes fear.  Here we are trying to discuss the ethical implications of an emerging technology, yet all around us the market is saying the tech is here!  The good news is that BCIs are still behind what a human can do.  This means we have time, albeit not unlimited, to discuss as a community what we need to do to ensure ethical use and development.  The article suggests that because we use BCIs to help assist paralyzed people, that the technology has progressed to a point where we can augment when in reality the technology restores some of the basic substance that was lost.  There is no doubt the BCI tide is coming, Bloomberg mentions two major companies, Neuralink and Kernel that are actively working on BCIs and DARPA which has over 10 active research efforts.


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