On March 7th, 2012 I attended a very enlightening guest lecture at Columbia University that was presented by Rajesh Rao, a computer science professor of the University of Washington. Professor Rao does extensive research into brain-computer interfacing, working with the Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Biology, and Neuroscience that goes into the development of the field. In his lecture he brought up many ethical considerations of interfacing the human brain that I will discuss in further detail below.
When dealing with a technology as new and powerful as brain-computer interfacing, there are obvious and not-so-obvious ethical implications that should not be overlooked. While the capabilities of this type of application are currently limited due to the crude quality of the data, technology will continue to advance allowing for clearer data to be acquired more easily. Soon it will not be science fiction to have a portable EEG device that has bi-directional interactivity – in other words, a device that talks back. The implications of this type of technology lead to numerous potential risks that need to be planned for in order to prevent. Some of these risks include health and safety, legal issues, abuse of technology, security and privacy, and social impacts.
Health and Safety
It is important to make sure that whatever technologies are implemented always make the safety of the user the number one priority. Certain invasive neurofeedback techniques, such as ECoG, involve surgical implantation of electrodes to provide extremely precise data. These types of procedures should remain within the medical realm and saved for people that need them – not people that want them – until they are better understood. With that said, even non-invasive techniques such as EEG could pose potential risks of physical and emotional dependency and dehumanization. It will be important to make sure that these devices are used for the betterment of mankind.
As far as legal issues are concerned, EEG devices are already being tested in criminal cases for lie detection and stimuli recognition. This type of use will likely evolve into a prime source of debate in the coming years and should be approached with good moral judgment and meticulousness.
Abuse, Security, and Privacy
Another serious issue of concern is the likelihood that EEG devices will eventually be linked to the Internet and thus be susceptible to hacking. As brain-computer interfacing technology progresses, extreme security measures must be taken to ensure that such systems are safe from people with malicious inent. Additionally, as the amount of people that use EEG devices continues to grow, the data that is collected from these users will become increasingly valuable. It will be important to ensure that the users’ anonymity is protected and that the industry the emerges around these technologies remains transparent.
Another important risk to consider is the potential social stratification that could arise from introducing beneficial EEG devices to the everyday person. It will be important to mitigate the likelihood that EEG devices will become a luxury that only the rich can afford.
It is most important to understand that the items discussed above only begin to delve into the potential risks of brain-computer interfacing. Development into this field must be undertaken carefully and honestly. Brain-computer interfaces should be developed for the betterment of man, and therefore the essence of humanity must remain resolute as this field continues grow. I strongly believe that an open-discussion-approach to this ongoing journey is necessary, in order for it to be done appropriately.