Of all the advanced technologies currently under development, one of the most fascinating and frightening is brain-computer interfaces. They’re fascinating because we still have so much to learn about the human brain, yet scientists are already able to tap into certain parts of it. And they’re frightening because of the sinister possibilities that come with being able to influence, read, or hijack peoples’ thoughts.
But the worst-case scenarios that have been played out in science fiction are just one side of the coin, and brain-computer interfaces could also be a tremendous boon to humanity—if we create, manage, and regulate them correctly. In a panel discussion at South by Southwest this week, four experts in the neuroscience and computing field discussed how to do this.
Panelists included Ben Hersh, a staff interaction designer at Google; Anna Wexler, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania; Afshin Mehin, the founder of a creative studio that helps companies give form to the future called Card79; and Jacob Robinson, an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering at Rice University and co-founder of Motif Neurotech, a company creating minimally invasive electronic therapies for mental health.
“This is a field that has a lot of potential for good, and there’s a lot that we don’t know yet,” Hersh said. “It’s also an area that has a lot of expectations that we’ve absorbed from science fiction.” In his opinion, “mind control for good” is not only a possibility, it’s an imperative.
The Mysterious Brain
Of all the organs in our bodies, the brain is by far the most complex—and the one we know the least about. “Two people can perceive the same stimuli and have a very different subjective experience, and there are no real rules to help us understand what translates your experience of the world into your subjective reality,” Robinson said.
But, he added, if we zoom in on the fundamental aspect of what’s happening in our brains, it is governed by physical processes. Could it be possible to control aspects of the brain and our subjective experiences with the level of precision we have in fields like physics and engineering?
“Part of why we’ve struggled with treating mental health conditions is that we don’t have a fundamental understanding of what leads to these disorders,” Robinson said. “But we know that they are network-level problems…we’re beginning to interface with the networks that are underlying these types of conditions, and help to restore them.”
Elon Musk’s Neuralink has brought BCIs into the public eye more than they’re ever been before, but there’s been a consumer neurotechnoloy market since the mid-2000s. Electroencephalography (EEG) uses electrodes placed on the head to record basic measures of brain wave activity. Consumer brain stimulation devices are marketed for cognitive enhancement, such as improving focus, memory, or attention.
More advanced neural interfaces are being used as assistive technology for people with conditions like ALS or paralysis, helping them communicate or move in ways they otherwise wouldn’t be able to: translating thoughts into text, movements, speech, or written sentences. One brain implant succeeded in alleviating treatment-resistant depression via small, targeted doses of electrical stimulation.
“Some of the things that are coming up are actually kind of extraordinary,” Hersh said. “People are working on therapies where electronics are implanted in the brain and can help deal with illnesses beyond the reach of modern medicine.”
This sounds pretty great, so what could go wrong? Well, unfortunately, lots. The idea of someone tapping into your brain and being able to control it is terrifying, and we’re not just talking dramatic scenarios like The Matrix; what if you had a brain implant for a medical purpose, but someone was able to subtly influence your choices around products or services you purchase? What if a record of your emotional state was released to someone you didn’t want to have it, or your private thoughts were made public? (I know what you’re thinking: ‘Wait—isn’t that what Twitter’s for?’)
Even tools with a positive intent could have unwanted impacts. Mehin’s company created a series of video vignettes imagining what BCI tech could do in day-to-day life. “The scenarios we imagined were spread between horrifying—imagine having an AI chatbot living inside your head—to actually useful, like being able to share how you’re feeling with a friend so they can help you sort through a difficult time.”
He shared that upon showing the videos at a design conference where there were students in the audience, a teacher spoke up and said, “This is horrible, kids will never be able to communicate with each other.” But then a student got up and said “We already can’t communicate with each other, this would actually be really useful.”
Would you want to live in a world where we need brain implants to communicate our emotions to one another? Where you wouldn’t sit and have coffee with a friend to talk about your career stress or marital strife, you’d just let them tap straight into your thoughts?
A brain-computer interface utopia sounds like an oxymoron; the real utopia would be one where we’re healthy, productive, and happy without the need for invasive technology tapping into the networks that dictate our every thought, feeling, and action.
But reality is that the state of mental health in the US is far from ideal. Millions of people suffer from conditions like PTSD, ADHD, anxiety, and depression, and pharmaceuticals haven’t been able to come up with a great cure for any of these. Pills like Adderall, Xanax, or Prozac come with unwanted side effects, and for some people they don’t work at all.
“One in ten people in the US suffer from a mental health disorder that’s not effectively treated by their drugs,” said Robinson. “Our hope is that BCIs could offer a 20-minute outpatient procedure that would provide therapeutic benefit for conditions like treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, or ADHD, and could last the rest of your life.”
He envisions a future where everyone has the ability to communicate rapidly and seamlessly, regardless of any disability, and where BCIs actually let us get back some of the humanity that has been stolen by social media and smartphones. “Maybe BCIs could help us rebalance the neural circuits we need to have control over our focus and our mood,” he said. “We would feel better, do better, and everyone could communicate.”
In the near term, the technology will continue to advance most in medical applications. Robinson believes we should keep moving BCIs forward despite the risks, because they can help people.
“There’s a risk that people see that vision of the dystopian future and decide to stop building these things because something bad could happen,” he said. “My hope is that we don’t do that. We should figure out how to go forward responsibly, because there’s a moral obligation to the people who need these things.”