Imagine having telepathic conversations with loved ones, instantaneously accessing superhuman computational power, playing back memories and dreams, or immersing yourself and every sense you possess into a virtual entertainment experience. In the distant future, if brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are successful at reading and writing information to the brain, and if humans adapt to the technology, we could experience some pretty amazing scenarios. But, there are many outstanding questions for how we could ensure a bright future: Who will own the data generated by our brains? Will brain data be bought and sold by data brokers like other personal information today? Will people be forced to use certain BCIs that surveil their brain activity (for example, to make sure you’re paying attention at work and school)? Will BCIs put peoples’ brains at risk of being hacked? As with all new technology, more of these philosophical questions will need to be investigated and answered before there is widespread adoption and use of BCIs in the future.
People are investing more time and money in personal technology, such as smart speakers, smart watches, wearables, and VR headsets. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated our adoption of new technology and increased our reliance on it for social connection, entertainment, and educational experiences. As we spend more time at home, many of us are turning to technology to augment our reality. Wearables — such as smart earbuds, lenses, watches, rings, bracelets, and even fabrics — layer biometric data, audio interaction, and visual information over our lived experiences. As wearable technology becomes commonplace in our daily lives, there’s an even more intimate connection on the horizon with the rise of the brain-computer interface (BCI).
BCIs can connect to a human’s brain either internally or externally. They read the brain activity and process the activity into information, and can also communicate information back to the brain. BCIs have the potential to amplify human intelligence to superhuman levels, which is exciting for technologists and entrepreneurs, but begs the question: Are we, our businesses, and our technological systems ready for this change?
How do BCIs benefit us?
BCIs fall into two categories: invasive and non-invasive. Invasive BCIs are implanted into the brain and connect tiny electrodes to neurons to measure their activity. Invasive BCIs, like Neuralink, require brain surgery — doctors drilling into the skull to implant the device and high-precision surgery robots to correctly attach the microscopic electrodes to neurons. Invasive BCIs capture better data and can be implanted in various regions of the brain. Invasive BCIs have been effective in treating spinal cord injuries, controlling prosthetic limbs, and treating depression. Non-invasive BCIs require no surgery, but depend on noisier signals from electroencephalogram (EEG) and infrared devices worn on the head. AI is used to isolate the brain signals that the BCI devices capture, as well as synthesize signals back into the brain.
BCIs have brought about incredible advancements in the medical field, and have been largely funded by the Department of Defense through DARPA. DARPA’s Brain Initiative is working on an impressive breadth of BCI projects that aim to help the body heal itself, restore sensory deficits caused by injury, and augment military service members by allowing them to operate drones, silently communicate, and integrate into defense systems. Companies like Kernel, Qneuro, NeuroSky and EMOTIV are rapidly moving toward widely-available devices and less-invasive BCI methods. These companies are working to measure and assess brain activity for a variety of uses, from playing games and stress reduction to typing out words by thinking them. Muse is a commercially available device that uses EEG to record and display brain data as a meditation aid. Even Facebook has been developing a BCI implant that reads brain activity, and is able to decipher a basic set of words.
Recently, there’s been a lot of hype around Neuralink, Elon Musk’s BCI startup. Neuralink demonstrated their implanted brain device reading and writing information to pigs’ brains in late August. Many neurologists downplayed the company’s demonstration in the context of advancing neuroscience. While the electrode technology displayed was advanced, there was little discussion of how the company would make sense of brain activity. One of the main goals of the demonstration was to attract talent to Neuralink and increase interest in BCIs to advance neurology and hardware. Musk has promised that Neuralink would start human trials by the end of 2020 with the aim of treating people who have severe neurological disorders.
How might BCIs evolve?
In the distant future, if BCIs are successful at reading and writing information to the brain, and if humans adapt to the technology, we could experience some pretty amazing scenarios. Imagine having telepathic conversations with loved ones, instantaneously accessing superhuman computational power, playing back memories and dreams, or immersing yourself and every sense you possess into a virtual entertainment experience. These scenarios are currently influencing the work of researchers, technologists, and futurists. In her book Artificial You, researcher and futurist Susan Schneider imagines a “Center for Mind Design” as follows:
“Hive Mind” is a brain chip allowing you to experience the innermost thoughts of your loved ones. “Zen Garden” is a microchip for Zen master-level meditative states. “Human Calculator” gives you savant-level mathematical abilities. What would you select, if anything? Enhanced attention? Mozart-level musical abilities? You can order a single enhancement, or a bundle of several.”
In a recent episode of The Artificial Podcast, futurist and technologist Brian Rommele described his vision for “The Intelligence Amplifier”:
“Let’s call it a holographic crystal memory that can hold petabytes of data, meaning maybe three lifetimes worth of video. That’s what petabytes of data means — live video of your entire life. Not so somebody can see it, but so it can be interpreted by your intelligence amplifier. So, it can build context so that you can now be a stronger you, a smarter you, from the moment you’re born.“
These are optimistic visions of the future of BCIs where users are in control of their BCIs and any applications installed on them. But, there are many outstanding questions for how we could ensure a bright future: Who will own the data generated by our brains? Will brain data be bought and sold by data brokers like other personal information today? Will people be forced to use certain BCIs that surveil their brain activity (for example, to make sure you’re paying attention at work and school)? Will BCIs put peoples’ brains at risk of being hacked? As with all new technology, more of these philosophical questions will need to be investigated and answered before there is widespread adoption and use of BCIs in the future.
How can we prepare for the future of BCIs?
It’s impossible to predict what will happen in the future. As is the case today with modern technology, we can be sure we’ll continue to grapple with philosophical questions as BCIs and humanity evolve. Those currently working in the space already have discussions about BCIs’ impact and how they can help and hinder humans. The more intimate the technology becomes, the more magnified unresolved issues like privacy, security, and closed ecosystems become.
Reduce AI Bias
Wearables and BCIs provide users access to a wealth of information, but simultaneously gather an abundance of biometric and personal data about those users. The same artificial intelligence (AI) these devices use to amplify human intelligence is being leveraged by companies to make sense of all of the data captured. AI bias will become an even bigger problem as companies use this technology to automate more decision-making.
Companies developing AI strategies should seek talent from marginalized groups to develop data management processes and attempt to remove AI bias. For companies not currently developing an AI strategy, it’s important to begin thinking about how AI impacts your industry. Today, most AI is fairly invisible and many people are surprised to learn the extent to which AI is used for things like choosing mortgage borrowers, regulating traffic flow, and trading stocks. Imagine a future where we are aware of and have control of the decisions AI makes for us so we can understand why those decisions are made.
Promote Digital Security and Privacy
If our personal technology continues to require an internet connection, we’ll face significant security tradeoffs as any networked device poses a vulnerability for hackers to exploit. Companies need to radically rethink their approach to digital security as an exploited BCI could cost someone their life. Users want more transparency and control — personal AIs can be employed to help users monitor and manage their own security.
The large corporations that create and operate AI platforms and devices already gather, analyze, and sell our personal data. Will these corporations continue to have unfettered access to our data and how will we be further exploited if BCIs are realized and the data captured is increasingly more intimate? Our society is becoming increasingly aware of and vigilant about privacy overreach.
Companies should develop stringent digital security measures and evaluate their privacy practices with the future in mind. We all should push for stricter privacy regulations — especially since technology giants are already brokering our personal data for advertising and profit. It is up to us to imagine a future in which widespread use of BCIs is a reality and put practices in place now that ensure the security and privacy of our minds.
Look to the Humanities
There is an increasing technological wealth gap that divides the haves and the have-nots. As wearables and BCIs become more common in the workforce, schools, and our daily lives, they could widen the gap further by creating large technologically poor populations. As Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun has said: “Nobody phrases it this way, but I think that artificial intelligence is almost a humanities discipline. It’s really an attempt to understand human intelligence and human cognition.”
We need to take a deeper look at the future of personal computing to imagine how humans and machines will merge and the effects it will have on society. Companies should focus more on the so-called “soft skills” of psychology, sociology, and anthropology to understand the impact technology has on users. Technologists must move from the “move fast and break things” mentality towards a more thoughtful approach, researching how the technology created impacts users and society. It is up to us to shape a future in which humanity is a priority and not an afterthought.
We are on the precipice of major societal changes fueled by issues like the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and a stressed global economy. Many people are looking to technology like wearables and BCIs as a beacon of hope in these uncertain times. While it’s nice to imagine a future where a lot of society’s current problems are resolved using advancements in technology, it is up to us to ensure that we’re prepared. Let’s approach our future and new technology with both hope and thoughtfulness.