Brain-computer interfaces: the implications of accessing human thought

The reason for existence of cognitive psychology, brain research and psychiatry is to get hold of human thought. What happens inside our skull has been a mystery ever since our emergence. For many centuries mind reading has been the domain of spiritualists, telepathists, fortune-tellers and other swindlers. They were the only ones capable of – they claimed – revealing the hidden and inaccessible treasure that is situated inside our skull. During the Enlightenment scientists started to disqualify these methods because of their arbitrariness and lack of objective verification. They suggested to base insights on observations only. That wasn´t always helpful. A disreputable example of observational science was phrenology, which used skull measurements for explaining intelligence. Today phrenology is fully abandoned and recognised as a pseudo-science. In the last century we have seen various new mind-reading efforts, most of which are based on physiological sensors, which capture skin resistance, blood pressure, heart beat and other phenomena linked with our autonomous nervous system. In many cases these systems were disputable as such. In recent years new technologies (fMRI, EEG) allowed brain research to directly detect neural activity in our brain and to verify the location in the brain and the conditions for occurrence. Today various low cost devices for capturing electrical brain signals are available, e.g. the Emotiv and Neurosky headsets, which can be used as a brain-computer interface: controlling your computer by thought. This may seem magical, and to a large extent it is, because it achieves what was exclusively reserved for wizards, fakirs and yogis: controlling the world with our mind. But it works alright (sort of)!

Still this is only one-way action, which is no more than the convenient, handsfree operation of computers. The great challenge of brain-computer interface research is to master two-way interaction. But here, we are faced with fundamental ethical questions about the implications of computers controlling human thought. Already the manipulation of human thought through advertisements, propaganda or biased TV news is an effective instrument for those who aim for power and influence. Bypassing the audience´s eyes and ears and directly connecting to their central nervous systems, however, would greatly simplify and facilitate the alignment of thoughts. For many people this may look like science fiction, very similar to the feature film examples of brainwashing, mind switching and the uploading of knowledge to the brain (e.g. the Matrix). Nevertheless, the direct connection of computers and nervous cells is already a proven and established medical technology that is applied in hand prostheses (linking a robotic hand to motor nerves in the arm), cochlear implants (linking a chip to the auditory nerve) and retinal implants (linking a chip to the optic nerve) for restoring hand motor function, hearing and vision, respectively.

The consequences of such technologies are immense. If we can connect our brain directly to a computer and learn how to code brain data, we will be able to use computers for enhancing our processing power, extending our memory capacity, and for uploading and downloading knowledge and experiences. Even more, we could use the internet to link to another computer that is connected to another person and communicate directly from brain to brain: we would have two connected brains, we could exchange thoughts and even more, without the need for speech or vision. Science fiction? On the contrary: this year, brain researchers Pais-Vieira, Lebedev, Kunicki, Wang and Nicolelis used brain-computer interfaces to connect the brains of two rats to the internet, one rat in Natal (Brazil) and the other rat in Durham (USA). After having taught a trick to one of the rats, the other rat was able to do the trick faultless. This is nothing less than knowledge sharing, transferring thought via the internet from one brain to the other, or even more: remote behavioural control. We can hardly imagine the impact of linking human brains together through the internet. The result would be an unprecedented system of collective intelligence, if not the loss of human individuality.


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1 Response to Brain-computer interfaces: the implications of accessing human thought

  1. Pingback: Brain Computer Interface is … | What is this ?

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