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. If you want to learn more about various applications of brain-computer interface, we talk extensively about them in this post.
BCI is an excellent technology, powerful even, but it has to overcome a few hurdles before we can see its widespread adoption. Here are some of them:
The most significant concern about BCI has a lot to do with ethics. Many neuro-ethicists believe that BCI is so robust that if it falls into the wrong hands, it can have drastic repercussions. Technocrats who are thinking about commercializing the technology can use it to read the thoughts and emotions of subjects, even if they have not given their consent. Just imagine if an organization can access your thoughts and ideas. That could translate to trampling on anyone’s human rights.
Merely decoding an individual’s thought processes through electrical activity and matching it with a prosthesis is acceptable. The ethical concerns in that space are minimal. But, with BCI, that may not be the case.
In BCI, a host of brain signals is mainly processed by an artificial intelligence (AI) system before it can even reach prosthetics. And that’s where ethical concerns arise. The AI device’s machine learning (ML) component may misinterpret data inputs, resulting in faulty predictions. Given its self-learning nature, the prosthetic may perform an action that does not match its user’s intention. A conflict between the user input may also be too complicated for the prosthetic to process, causing it to malfunction.
Data Privacy and Cybersecurity
In the medical field, an electroencephalogram (EEG) helps detect abnormal brain activities, allowing doctors to discover illnesses such as sleep disorder and epilepsy. Aside from diagnostic applications, EEG devices can also monitor a patient’s emotional and cognitive reactions based on specific markers. These metrics allow the EEG operator to obtain a patient’s feelings toward or thoughts about sensitive topics such as sexuality, politics, and consumption. In essence, they give EEG operators a means to gain deep insight into a patient’s preferences, which may not be welcome.
In most cases, patients are not aware that prediction algorithms can obtain such information. And that is something that the data handler can take advantage of. Some unscrupulous companies that collect this sensitive data can sell it to third parties without the patients’ consent. It doesn’t help that a lot of people are willing to pay vast amounts for personal profiles. This vulnerability can be exploited by nefarious individuals who dwell and sell personal data in the Dark Web.
BCI indeed has a huge potential to improve lives. It helps patients regain the ability to perform tasks that they lost due to a debilitating illness, a brain injury, or even serious accidents. But, for the relatively healthy individuals who may want to improve their moods, enhance physical attributes, or improve their attention span, BCI use may be going overboard, at least, until experts can weed out the unnecessary risks.
For now, BCI’s applications should probably remain limited to those who need it most. And even then, users should be made aware of the risks it poses. Proper safeguards must also be put in place to ensure an acceptable level of security.