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Will a Brain-Computer Interface Be a Boon or a Nightmare?

BCI is probably coming anyway, and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing largely depends on how we choose to use it

Talk about a scary headline from an impressive research group!: “The Brain-Computer Interface is coming — and we are just so not ready for it” from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Okay, what’s going on? Both more and less than we think, depending on what we focus on.

The Bulletin, published since 1947, is best known for a Doomsday Clock which expresses how close the editors think we are to nuclear war and climate apocalypse. An article in the current edition of the Bulletin covers the remarkable advances in prosthetics in recent years, in hooking up neurons (which use electrical signals) to electronic limbs, enabling much better control of prostheses. But the startling thing to realize is where researchers might be able to go from there:

It suddenly became clear that a person fitted with a brain-computer interface could use it to do a lot more than nibble chocolate. Once the brain signal is in a computer, it can go essentially anywhere, be connected to almost anything. It could be sent to the next room, or go to the moon. It could connect to a flight simulator — or a real airplane, like the unmanned aerial vehicles on the shelves at the Intelligent Systems Center. “Getting information on what neurons are doing, whether you map that to an airplane or an arm or you name it, it doesn’t matter,” said Dave Blodgett, chief scientist for the research and exploratory development department at the Applied Physics Laboratory, who leads a team developing a brain-computer interface.

Paul Tullis, “The Brain-Computer Interface is coming—and we are just so not ready for it” at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (September 15, 2020)

That would give our brains, operating by themselves, power beyond our limbs, to control things by thoughts alone. Impossible? First, let’s backtrack a bit to recent achievements in prosthetics:

  • Paralyzed subject gains control much faster via a new technique. The new technique links the electrodes much more intimately with the neurons so total relearning every day is unnecessary.
  • Through AI, a paralyzed man has regained the sense of touch. In 2016, through advanced technology, he regained the ability to move individual fingers
  • Prosthetic hand controlled by thoughts alone? It’s here. Decades ago, no one could control a prosthesis only by thought. There is lots of room for the field to grow still.
  • High tech can help the blind see and amputees feel. It’s not a miracle; the human nervous system can work with electronic information.

and

  • New mind-controlled robot arm needs no brain implant. The thought-controlled device could help people with movement disorders control devices without the costs and risks of surgery.

Big players have grand ideas for the brain-computer interface that go well beyond helping amputees and paralytics do more:

Today, Facebook is in fact one of at least five companies working on a non-invasive, or minimally invasive, brain-computer interface. DARPA, meanwhile, has funded six groups, mostly in academia (including one at the Applied Physics Laboratory), to develop a device capable of sensing and stimulating the brain—reading from it and writing to it—as good as instantly. All have been making slow but, by their accounts, steady progress.

Some envision a day when a device worn in a hat can understand and transmit thoughts. “Think of a universal neural interface you could put on and seamlessly interact with anything in your home environment, and it would just know what you need to do when you need to do it,” said Justin Sanchez, former director of the Biological Technologies Office at DARPA, where he oversaw the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, which provided grants to APL and the other groups to develop a non-invasive interface. Sanchez is now life sciences technical fellow at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, one of the N3 participants.

Paul Tullis, “The Brain-Computer Interface is coming—and we are just so not ready for it” at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (September 15, 2020)

But, some naturally ask, assuming it all happens, what about privacy? What about the possibility of massive surveillance? Well, two things. First, in general, despite promising developments, it’s a long way off:

Obstacles to a non-invasive, or minimally invasive, brain-computer interface that can actually do something are many. You need to make your device as small as possible, as flexible as possible, and as biocompatible as possible, which is hard enough. For medical use, to stimulate and sense brain activity—to record intention from the central nervous system and simultaneously deliver it through the peripheral nervous system, like Burkhart’s brain-computer interface does—“is actually very difficult to do, since neural signals are very small,” said Rikky Muller, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC Berkeley. Few methods can gather a lot of information from the brain quickly enough to operate the thing you connect the brain to—be it prosthetic arm, flight simulator, or drone. The more data you collect, the slower you become, and the faster you get the less data you can grab. Muller pointed to other problems. To pick just one: “It’s very hard to squeeze a high data rate out of a wireless device, because it costs power you don’t necessarily have when you’re in a power-constrained environment, like inside the human body,” she said.

Paul Tullis, “The Brain-Computer Interface is coming—and we are just so not ready for it” at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (September 15, 2020)

Another likely slowdown is this: Just as we now know of solutions we did not know before, we will probably discover problems we did not know before. Those delays and disappointments must also be factored in.

But second, it would be technically possible today for government to place equipment in every home to survey everything everyone does and to track every purchase electronically. We don’t need mind-reading for practically total surveillance. If that isn’t happening now, it’s because societies do not believe in it, not because it isn’t possible. Thus, as these inventions unfold, we will need to keep our core values in mind.


You may also find helpful: Elon Musk’s myths about the mind According to Musk, everything in the brain is an electrical signal. That’s pretty naive (Jonathan Bartlett)


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Will a Brain-Computer Interface Be a Boon or a Nightmare?