As if cybersecurity professionals and privacy advocates don’t have enough to worry about. Along comes a new technology that can possibly give them more sleepless nights. Brain-computer interface (BCI), also known as mind-machine interface (MMI) or brain-machine interface (BMI), as the name implies, connects an external computing device directly to a human brain. This video shows one example of how BCI can change lives.
While many consider this as a huge step forward for technology, some are wary about what unfiltered access to one’s brain might mean. So the question is, will this technology, once widely adopted and commercially viable, put users at risk of malevolent schemes? Or are we fretting over nothing?
The Ultimate UI
BCI taps right into a person’s brain and thus appears to be the ultimate user interface (UI). Today’s computers are constrained by what they can input and output. Inputs are typically limited to what can be typed on a keyboard, pointed at with a mouse, or scanned and perceived by various sensors. Outputs are likewise limited to devices that can receive signals from a computer and render these into meaningful information.
BCI, on the other hand, potentially has the entire human sensory system at its disposal, including a high-bandwidth visual interface, a person’s eyes. Outputs can be blazingly fast since it would bypass the whole sequence of traveling from the brain to the nervous system to our hands typing on a keyboard or clicking a mouse. Latency from the keyboard or mouse issuing the corresponding commands to the operating system (OS) would likewise be eliminated.
Developers are now rolling out more and more applications, particularly in the area of medicine, where brain-machine interface helps people who do not have control of their limbs. Military and exploration outfits are also keen on applications that allow people to control machines in hostile environments. We also expect to see video games that combine BCI with virtual reality (VR) soon.
Privacy and Other Issues
The main concern with BCI is that people believe it opens up the contents of one’s mind to anyone with access to the technology and the right know-how. Several things are converging to validate this concern.
First, our understanding of the human brain is progressing. There were parts and processes that we did not comprehend at first, but now grasp with a comfortable level of confidence. Second, we are getting better at mapping areas of the brain with corresponding thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Third, brain-machine interface has reached a point where it actually works and can be put to good use. And, finally, some people see this as an opportunity for personal gain.
Take raw electroencephalogram (EEG) data, for example. At present, it does not tell us much more than which parts of the brain are active when a person is exposed to stimuli, when specific emotions are felt, or when certain activities are performed. But that is quickly changing as researchers better understand which individual markers indicate emotions, preferences, and tastes. And with millions of EEG samples that have been generated to date by the healthcare industry, it will soon be possible to put together individual personality profiles that companies will be willing to pay for. Privacy issues certainly come into play here.
But before you get all hysterical about someone being able to pluck your password right out of your mind, you need to know that BCI cannot do that. Not yet, at least. The information generated by the brain is not granular enough to yield anything of use. At best, all we can really identify are electrical signals corresponding to general brain activity. We can map these signals to specific user intentions within the framework of the application, such as “go left,” “go right,” “thumbs up,” and such. But, for now, it’s not able to harvest specific information such as a password, a secret recipe, or a dark little secret.
Brain-computer interface technology promises much by way of extending human capabilities. It also scares people because they feel their minds can be cracked wide open by cybercriminals. There’s nothing to be afraid of at this point, though. Your secrets are safe, tucked inside your brain.
As with other issues that touch on protecting privacy and averting security risks, the first step is to make sure you understand the details of the matter. Familiarize yourself with the potentials and limits of the technology, be aware of the security risks, and arm yourself with the possible ways to mitigate any attacks, including technical and legal resources.