Brain-computer interface: huge potential benefits and formidable challenges

A new Royal Society report called “iHuman: blurring lines between mind and machine” is for the first time systematically exploring whether it is “right” or not to use neural interfaces – machines implanted in or worn over the body to pick up or stimulate nervous activity in the brain or other parts of the nervous system. It also sets out recommendations to ensure the ethical risks are understood, and to set up a transparent, public-driven but flexible regulatory framework which will allow the UK to lead innovative technology in this field.

Neural interfaces, brain-computer interfaces and other devices that blur the lines between mind and machine have extraordinary potential. Image Credit: Iaremenko Sergii / Shutterstock
Neural interfaces, brain-computer interfaces and other devices that blur the lines between mind and machine have extraordinary potential. Image Credit: Iaremenko Sergii / Shutterstock

The thrust of the report is on making sure the government understands the ethics of neural interface technology, its large benefits in hitherto hopeless conditions, and the need to guarantee that, as co-chair Tim Constandinou says, “these emerging technologies are implemented safely and for the benefit of humanity.” The reason for this detailed report is that, willy-nilly, the technology is going to be put in place, if not safely, then in an unregulated and dangerous manner. As Constandinou continues to say, “In 10 years’ time this is probably going to touch millions of people.”

An introduction to neural interfaces | The Royal Society

Neural implants already being used

At least 400 000 cochlear implants have already been put in place in deaf children, to bypass the auditory apparatus and allow the person to hear sounds from outside simply by converting them into electrical signals that directly reach the brain. Deep brain stimulation in conditions like Parkinson’s disease is also an established modality of treatment, suppressing tremors and stiffness by targeted stimulation of dopaminergic neurons in specific areas of the brain. Even more excitingly, there are artificial arms and legs that move in response to the patient’s thought.

By 2040, says the report, conditions like Alzheimer’s disease will probably be treated using a BCI.

Elon Musk is already working on Neuralink, a BCI initiative that will allow paralyzed people to use computers to communicate using their thoughts alone. This could improve the quality of life for people with locked-in syndrome, for instance, where the brain is normal but is totally cut off from the rest of the body. However, Musk has plans that are far in advance of helping people to just replace something they have lost. He foresees that artificial intelligence (AI) could advance so rapidly and so much that it forces humans to become subsidiary, something like a house pet. Installing an AI layer would be a good way to stay in step with AI instead, he says, and the “neural lace” interface his company is producing is an initiative designed to do just that. He plans to begin clinical trials of these neural threads next year.

Facebook is also actively working on a 100-words-per-minute brain-typing interface that will replace manual typing one day.

However, scientists in this pioneering field make it clear that we have not even scratched the surface of the potential applications of brain-computer interfaces (BCI), which could not only help solve medical issues like dementia, epilepsy, untreatable depression, and obesity, but could help people communicate without sound and even without words. We could share sensory experiences with others far away, as by sending “neural postcards”, letting others visually experience their trip or “taste” the food they are eating, by sharing the brain’s neural activity

The report speaks of previously unimaginable levels of thought sharing: “People could become telepathic to some degree, able to converse not only without speaking but without words – through access to each other’s thoughts at a conceptual level. This could enable unprecedented collaboration with colleagues and deeper conversations with friends.”

The danger

At the same time, the dangers of commercializing this field are obvious, not only in the area of leveraging BCIs to read others’ thoughts even when the subject is not willing, but if Big Tech companies manage to obtain monopolistic access to human thoughts and ideas. This could lead to the sacrifice of more useful but less profitable avenues of neural interface technology on the altar of financial gain. According to co-chair Christofer Toumazou, “The applications for neural interfaces are as unimaginable today as the smartphone was a few decades ago...However, if developments are dictated by a handful of companies then less commercial applications could be side-lined.”

The report also says, “Access to people’s thoughts, moods and motivations could lead to abuse of human rights.” Co-author Susan Chan says, “As our experience with social media has shown, we do need to think ahead to guard against possible harmful uses. If recent experience has shown us anything, it’s that individual consent and opting in or out is not enough to protect either individuals or society more widely.”

However, deeper issues are also raised about how such implant-driven changes in a person’s thoughts and decisions affect the humanness of the person. Will the person one deals with still be human or a mix of computer and human once such a process is set in motion?

The recommendations

The Royal Society report recommends:

  • The government should launch a national investigation to understand the ethical issues behind this technology, including what data is permissible to collect and safety measures during data storage
  • The creation of a UK Neural Interface Ecosystem to promote greater sharing of technology and increased output of new and useful ideas from both sides, academic and industry
  • Governmental regulatory frameworks should look at the best methods of ensuring innovation while checking the tendency of big technology companies to take over the field. One suggestion is a “sandbox” approach where new medical devices are tested out in a controlled environment to ensure they are safe and effective
  • Encouraging public dialogue and using these opinions to modify the applications, thus ensuring public good is served, while also protecting the rights of individuals to opt out of the neural thought sharing network

At present, the British public strongly support the development of BCI to help patients to recover essential or very useful functions lost due to brain injury or illness, but not so much for healthy people to boost their memory, attention spans or physical skills. Thus, a regulated healthy development that includes due safeguards is aimed at, to improve the lives of millions of people without costing humans their very identity.

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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