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Brain-Computer Interface

Introduction

Technology is the ethos of the modern era. As a manifestation of our intellect and power, we expect technology to unveil many of the mysteries that surround us. It allures us. Seemingly neutral, technology presents itself as a tool capable of benefiting and harming. However, technology is only neutral when examined vacuously. When seen in light of human history, it is the embodiment of our desire for perfection. It is the means by which humans aim at attaining god-like power and god-like wholeness. In our pursuit of godhood, however, technology becomes our god.

 

When applied, technology achieves two significant feats: efficiency and progress. The solutions it provides act as sources of comfort and wonder. However, while it creates ease it also facilitates dependency. Technology embeds itself in human life by granting unprecedented control over one's environment.  This is often achieved through the exploitation of natural resources. 

         

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      - Albert Einstein

One of the latest technological pursuits is the development of brain-computer interface (BCI). Also called, neural-control interface and brain-machine interface, scientists and private companies are currently pursuing methods of facilitating synchronicity between our brains/minds and technology. Arguments in favor of this technology suggest that there will be medical benefits once BCI operates smoothly. Others hope to achieve a breakthrough in communication technologies, essentially allowing us to communicate via neural networks transmitted through the BCI. Once integrated with artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces could allow us to tap into the internet allowing access to information and our digital lives.

 

The potentials of BCI are grand in scope. However, we must ask ourselves, what is the ultimate aim of BCI if it extends beyond a therapeutic scope. Will it become a commercialized enhancement? If so, what is the end goal of this enhancement, and what sort of ethical issues arise along the way? We risk creating further disparity among classes and conceding what remaining privacy we have. We may find that we are further along the path of technology’s domination over us.

How It Works

Brain-computer interface is only possible through the development of what is known as the electroencephalogram (EEG). This is a device created to evaluate and measure electrical frequencies in the brain. The first EEG dates back roughly 100 years ago. Hans Berger was one of the first neurologists to record the electrical activity inside the human brain. 

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BCI Technology

The drive towards technological advancement is at base an existential phenomenon. While nature tends to represent cyclic structures, technology appears one-directional — a progression.  It makes situations once thought impossible, possible. However, with each solution arises yet another problem. This is in fact a paradox of technology. We perceive phenomena through the lens of problems needing solutions, assuming a closed resolvable system. For example, we agree that famine is an issue. Hence, we utilize technology in order to mass-produce and distribute food. However, this solution may in turn contribute significantly to greenhouse emissions. Emission impacts climate, which in turn affects agriculture. A complete solution is not guaranteed. 

Brain-computer interface technology merits attention because like

other technologies it promises benefits but is also capable of causing greater harm than good. In terms of benefits, BCI could potentially allow individuals to seamlessly control their prosthetic limbs. It would allow us to gather information rapidly and increase our control over devices that will become compatible with BCI. However, these benefits cannot be accomplished without significant assistance from artificial intelligence (AI). While electrical activity can be detected easily in the brain, the neural correlates of psychological phenomena are complex and would require assistance from predictive AI. 

When considering the future of brain-computer interface, we notice that it follows an underlying object of technology, namely, convergence. Convergence suggests progressive synchronicity. Brain-computer interface adheres to this convergence because it is a technology that ultimately aims at creating a fluid connection between our brains, artificial intelligence, and other individuals within the network. The improved synergy between technology and ourselves is a step towards an integrated system. Would it not be simpler to initiate conversations with others via my mind? One could mentally access virtual assistance on-demand. This would allow nearly instant retrieval of vast information. Personal memories could be categorized and thought processing could be aided. If experiencing a health issue, one's brain-computer interface could recognize the neural abnormalities and with the help of AI, provide a diagnosis.

  

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BCI Company Summaries

While assistance from brain-computer interfaces and artificial intelligence might give us more control and possibility, the technology will embed itself deeply within our lives as we become increasingly dependent on it. We accept these technological innovations along with their apparent benefits without having a greater purpose for them. Enhancement for its own sake is not enhancement as far as humans are concerned. At some point, we will no longer be empowered by technology, but rather enslaved to it. It might be easier to communicate with one another, but does it make it easier to understand one other. Does it enhance the individual, or does it deprive the individual? Does it promote the search for meaning, or is it just another step towards progress for its own sake? 

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Ethics of BCI 

The ethical issues regarding brain-computer interface technology are examined in light of its current capabilities and future potentials. First is the question of research. While brain-computer interface hardware is being developed, are private companies and researchers following the principle of nonmaleficence? BCI research requires invasive operations involving the most complex human organ. First and foremost, researchers must approach participants with care, ensuring safety guidelines. 

 

Furthermore, how will brain-computer interfaces affect social classes? In its advanced stages, will the technology be affordable to individuals of varying financial status or will it be accessible only to the rich?  If BCI becomes a human enhancement that only the rich can afford, it will increase the socioeconomic disparity between classes. BCI could also act as the catalyst of two categories of humans. Those resisting BCI implantation for ethical, religious, or personal reasons might eventually be considered inferior by those who are now 'enhanced'. 

 

The fact that brain-computer interface technology utilizes digital software and hardware indicates that it is susceptible to hacking. From a hypothetical standpoint, this could entail extracting information from one's mind or directing one's thoughts and actions. While there are companies dedicated to cybersecurity, one assumes the risk of losing the privacy one has when retreating into one's own mind. Autonomy will be questionable as AI increasingly involves itself in one's decision-making. 

 

Will computer-brain interface play a role in shaping a world like George Orwell's world in Neighteen Eighty-Four. Individual's actions and words were monitored by the government's surveillance in Orwell's dystopian novel. If societally integrated, BCI would enable the monitoring of internal thoughts along with their physiological responses. Lies could be instantly detected. One's location could be tracked. Communications and interactions could be ceaselessly recorded. Under such surveillance, BCI would become a technology that strips individuals of their autonomy and privacy. 

Man & Machine

Humans find themselves in a grand paradox; distinct and indistinct, a part within the whole, changing while remaining the same. Whether religious, scientific, atheistic, we find ourselves in a state of confusion and uncertainty. Thus, we are confronted with the desire for something greater. We desire to be needed, to be whole, to serve some purpose. We hope that faith, a partner, or a pastime will fill the emptiness we are confronted with as we become aware of our inadequacies and finitude. Technology offers a solution. It provides us with greater knowledge. It aims at perfection, and it guarantees ease. Technology allows us to become potent in areas previously inaccessible. Machine integration is the culmination of these benefits. Brain-computer interfaces now present a potential avenue for achieving fluid consciousness among individuals and artificial intelligence. However, this benefit is superficial and misleading. Why do I want a computer in my brain? For what? Will it assist me in understanding myself?

As Leo Tolstoy says in War & Peace, "Man is created for happiness. This happiness is within him, in the satisfaction of simple human needs. All unhappiness arises not from privation but from superfluity." The excess complexity that brain-computer interface presents will lead us further from our already inadequate understanding of self. It leads us on a path that requires us to continue developing technologies, refining them so that brain-computer interfaces will make us capable of more. This is the nature of technology. As such, we will be enslaved to our desire to achieve this perfection that technology seems to possess. We must however realize, that technology is a mechanistic system void of profound existential meaning, capable of subjugating nature on its path towards domination and self-sufficiency. When we follow and aid the linear nature of technology, we stray from our cyclic nature of being and becoming. 

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Hence I have yielded  magic to see

Whether the spirit's mouth and might

Would Bring some mysteries to light,

That I need not with work and woe

Go on to say what I don't know;

That I might see what secret force

Hides in the world and rules its course.

Envisage the creative blazes

instead of rummaging in phrases.

Geothe, Faust

This page was created by Bioethics graduate student Flavius Rusu.

Flavius Rusu is a first-year

graduate student at the Bioethics Institute. He is the Craves Scholar and manages the content for the Bioethics Hub.

Illustrations created by jo. 

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References