In the information zeitgeist, the race to acquire data has reached a new level. Tech pioneers such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are going straight to the source by accessing and mining your grey matter. With the evolution of Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI), the act of mind-reading, once relegated to science fiction and paltry carnival tricks, is now, literally, top of mind.
In July, one of Musk’s startups, Neuralink, revealed a neurosurgical robot that can embed tiny threads in the brain. These threads, each thinner than a human hair, can be implanted with the intent of giving you control over your smartphone or computer using just your thoughts.
The initial applications seem well-intentioned. According to Musk, this is tech that can give people with paralysis agency over their own bodies by reading neuronal signals and transmitting them to a device. There’s hope that BCI may eventually give back the power of speech to some patients.
In August, Mark Zuckerberg announced through his blog the intention to create a device that can read your mind in a similar fashion. Facebook is funding a team of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to develop BCI that can pick up thoughts directly from your neurons and translate them into words.
While the short-term goal is also to help patients with paralysis, either sustained through injury or manifested through a disease such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Zuckerberg’s end game seems more commercialized, as evidenced by his blog:
“Imagine a world where all the knowledge, fun, and utility of today’s smartphones were instantly accessible and completely hands-free. Where you could spend quality time with the people who matter most in your life, whenever you want, no matter where in the world you happen to be. That’s a future we believe in, and one we think will be fully realized in the ultimate form factor of a pair of stylish, augmented reality (AR) glasses.”
Facebook wants to combine wearable tech, BCI and augmented reality (AR) to read your mind. Of course, they’ll need the data in your brain to do this. If we consider the bioethics of allowing this type of access – the final rampart of mind-reading as it were — it may not be long before your private thoughts are no longer your own.
The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE) defines ‘cognitive liberty’ as “ the right of each individual to think independently and autonomously, to use the full spectrum of his or her mind, and to engage in multiple modes of thought.” Beyond intellectual property laws, cognitive liberty seeks to protect thoughts, not just conceptual ideas. They’re concerned with the “ethics of treating or manipulating the mind,” or neuroethics.
The main contentious issue occupying the CCLE is that science has advanced faster than legislation can keep up; the wider the gap, the greater the potential for abuse.
A central player pushing for these new human rights is Marcello Ienca, who released a paper outlining four specific rights he’d like to see passed into law.
“I’m very concerned about the commercialization of brain data in the consumer market,” Ienca told Vox.com. “We already have consumer neurotech, with people trading their brain data for services from private companies.”
Ienca points to existing technology such as neurogaming, where your brain activity makes the game progress forward, and self-tracking devices (such as a Fitbit) that monitor your biological activities. He uses the term “neurocapitalism” to describe the potential abuses that can result from bringing BCI to a consumer market without the proper checks and balances.
“What we can do is recognize when the technology has advanced beyond what people know is possible, and make sure that information is delivered back to the community,” Mark Chevillet, head of the BCI Facebook project, said in the company blog post.
‘Can’ is one thing; Facebook can already access your information and gain valuable cognitive insights based on how you use their site. One need look no further than the Cambridge Analytica scandal to see the flaws in Chevillet’s statement.
Whether designed for the purpose of improving human performance or accessing purchasing insights and personal information, without transparency and revised laws that protect cognitive liberties, it may not be long before our brain waves become yet another commodity.