Brain-computer interface researchers warn of a 'bleak' cyberpunk future – unless we tread carefully

Commercial exploitation of a person's inner thoughts 'particularly worrisome'


Researchers at Imperial College London have sounded the alarm over a "bleak panorama" surrounding brain-computer interfaces (BCI), warning of a potential future in which BCI-equipped cyborgs divide the world – or have their inner thoughts harvested for commercial exploitation.

BCIs are, potentially, the next big thing. From playing slot-car racing to restoring speech or motor function, there's considerable interest in using electronics to read peoples' minds.

But not all progress on the BCI front is positive, researchers at Imperial College London warned – and the industry needs to take care amid reports of reliance on technology, thoughts of a world divided into those with access and those without, and the potential for commercial exploitation of a person's innermost musings.

"For some of these patients, these devices become such an integrated part of themselves that they refuse to have them removed at the end of the clinical trial," said Rylie Green PhD, one of the authors of a new review on the state of the art in BCI research, of subjects in studies where BCI devices have been used to control wheelchairs or prostheses.

"It has become increasingly evident that neurotechnologies have the potential to profoundly shape our own human experience and sense of self."

The review turned up increasing interest from commercial ventures, including work on reading subjects' minds to turn the intention of speech into written text – though Facebook, the funder of a successful project to do just that, announced it was pulling funding to go in a different and somewhat less-creepy direction with its commercialisation efforts.

BCI isn't just about restoring functionality, though, but can also be used to augment it – allowing a typist, for example, to operate at the speed of thought. Potentially, in a lesson taught by a range of dystopian science-fiction media, it could lead to a world of haves and have-nots: the augmented, and the natural.

"This bleak panorama brings forth an interesting dilemma about the role of policymakers in BCI commercialisation," Green, reader in polymer bioelectronics at Imperial College London, continued in a statement on the topic.

"Should regulatory bodies intervene to prevent misuse and unequal access to neurotech? Should society follow instead the path taken by previous innovations, such as the internet or the smartphone, which originally targeted niche markets but are now commercialised on a global scale?

"Despite the potential risks, the ability to integrate the sophistication of the human mind with the capabilities of modern technology constitutes an unprecedented scientific achievement, which is beginning to challenge our own preconceptions of what it is to be human."

Roberto Portillo-Lara PhD, a researcher associate at Imperial's department of bioengineering, had his own concerns. "This is particularly worrisome," he said of the potential for commercial ventures to gain access to readings taken by BCI systems, "since neural data is often considered to be the most intimate and private information that could be associated with any given user.

"This is mainly because, apart from its diagnostic value, EEG data could be used to infer emotional and cognitive states, which would provide unparalleled insight into user intentions, preferences, and emotions."

The review which triggered these concerns has been published under open-access terms in the journal APL Bioengineering. ®

Similar topics

Narrower topics


Other stories you might like

  • Stolen university credentials up for sale by Russian crooks, FBI warns
    Forget dark-web souks, thousands of these are already being traded on public bazaars

    Russian crooks are selling network credentials and virtual private network access for a "multitude" of US universities and colleges on criminal marketplaces, according to the FBI.

    According to a warning issued on Thursday, these stolen credentials sell for thousands of dollars on both dark web and public internet forums, and could lead to subsequent cyberattacks against individual employees or the schools themselves.

    "The exposure of usernames and passwords can lead to brute force credential stuffing computer network attacks, whereby attackers attempt logins across various internet sites or exploit them for subsequent cyber attacks as criminal actors take advantage of users recycling the same credentials across multiple accounts, internet sites, and services," the Feds' alert [PDF] said.

    Continue reading
  • Big Tech loves talking up privacy – while trying to kill privacy legislation
    Study claims Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft work to derail data rules

    Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft often support privacy in public statements, but behind the scenes they've been working through some common organizations to weaken or kill privacy legislation in US states.

    That's according to a report this week from news non-profit The Markup, which said the corporations hire lobbyists from the same few groups and law firms to defang or drown state privacy bills.

    The report examined 31 states when state legislatures were considering privacy legislation and identified 445 lobbyists and lobbying firms working on behalf of Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft, along with industry groups like TechNet and the State Privacy and Security Coalition.

    Continue reading
  • SEC probes Musk for not properly disclosing Twitter stake
    Meanwhile, social network's board rejects resignation of one its directors

    America's financial watchdog is investigating whether Elon Musk adequately disclosed his purchase of Twitter shares last month, just as his bid to take over the social media company hangs in the balance. 

    A letter [PDF] from the SEC addressed to the tech billionaire said he "[did] not appear" to have filed the proper form detailing his 9.2 percent stake in Twitter "required 10 days from the date of acquisition," and asked him to provide more information. Musk's shares made him one of Twitter's largest shareholders. The letter is dated April 4, and was shared this week by the regulator.

    Musk quickly moved to try and buy the whole company outright in a deal initially worth over $44 billion. Musk sold a chunk of his shares in Tesla worth $8.4 billion and bagged another $7.14 billion from investors to help finance the $21 billion he promised to put forward for the deal. The remaining $25.5 billion bill was secured via debt financing by Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Barclays, and others. But the takeover is not going smoothly.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022