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Op-Ed: Why we should worry about Big Tech’s investment in a new brain technology

In July, scientists reported using a nerve implant in a man’s brain to restore his ability to communicate. The man known as Pancho, has been partially paralyzed since his severe stroke in 2003 and is unable to speak clearly.

The new technology records Pancho’s brain activity with a series of electrodes, analyzes the activity to identify the words he is trying to say, and then translates those intentions into written words that can be viewed on a computer screen. It’s the latest advancement in the exploding field of brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs. Similar systems have made headlines by enabling people who are paralyzed from the neck down Control computer cursor and Muscle stimulators directly with their thoughts.

Brain-computer interfaces enable computers to read information from or insert information into a living brain. We’ll no doubt see more headlines about BCIs as new advances build on previous successes. So now we have to ask ourselves fundamental questions: How do these technologies work? Could they be used to secretly read our minds? Should we be excited or concerned about how BCIs might affect our society?

While both brains and computers are complex, brain-computer interfaces are possible because of two simple facts. The first is that your brain contains hundreds of tiny maps. Each of these cards represents specific characteristics of your physical sensations and intended actions. The cards are not made of paper and ink, but are made up of brain cells and are rendered with electrical activity. And crucially, the basic set of brain maps and their locations in the brain are very similar in individuals.

Thanks to their specialized functions and universal locations, Brain Maps are ideal entry points for BCI technologies. To get information from Pancho’s brain about what he was trying to say, scientists opened part of his skull and placed 128 electrodes against it a brain map depicting the movement of the tongue, lips, jaw, and larynx – in other words, the parts of his body that produce spoken sounds. This enabled the scientists to measure the electrical activity in the brain map that represented the words he was trying to say.

Collecting signals from a brain map is only the first step in creating a useful BCI. Although the location of a brain map is the same for everyone, the details – what activity patterns are within the map mean – different from person to person. In a way, the unique features of your specific brain maps act as a type of encryption that protects your specific thoughts and sensations from possible eavesdroppers.

That brings us to the second fact that makes BCIs possible. Thanks to advances in machine learning, scientists have developed programs that can learn to recognize key patterns in a vast sea of numbers. They train these programs to decipher brain signals by feeding them tons of examples. But if the goal of training such programs called decoders is to decipher signals from a particular individual’s brain, then those examples must also come from that particular brain.

Researchers developing BCIs often create such examples by directing a person to think certain thoughts at specific times and creating a neural curriculum from which the program can learn. In Pancho’s case, the scientists collected nearly 10,000 examples of activity on his voice card while he was trying to say common words presented on a screen and another 250 examples while trying to say sentences built from those words. Despite this extensive training, his decoders were wrong between 25 and 50% of the time.

While the universal functions and locations of brain maps make them obvious portals for BCIs, the unique functions of your brain maps tend to shield them from prying eyes. In cases where BCIs have successfully read certain thoughts or intentions from a brain, they did so with the permission and consent of the person whose brain was read.

But there are secret ways to train decoders on your brain without your knowledge. This can happen when your neural data, whether from electrodes in your brain or from sensors embedded in one, is being collected Headband or a cap, falls into the hands of companies with detailed information about their activities.

For example Facebook partially funded the research that Panchos BCI did and has its own BCI development program. The enterprise reported work to BCIs, which decode neural signals collected by a non-invasive wearable device that could enable people to type with their mind by imagining speaking. While Facebooks current statements show that they are moving away from these specific plans, they continue to actively research other BCI concepts.

Before the general public lines up for such technologies, should ask us as we plan to protect Personal rights and privacy in a world where technologies like this are widespread.

With plenty of data on your shopping history and online behavior, many companies already know more about you than you might want. If companies or advertisers could get access the privacy threats to your personal neural data would be enormous.

And if a company like Facebook or Google were allowed to collect signals from your brain while you use their products to compose messages, make purchases, or browse your feeds, they would have the data they need to get one Train decoders to read some of your specific thoughts and actions. What you could read would be limited and sometimes wrong, but it would be an access to your thoughts that you did not want to allow.

Like all technologies, brain-computer interfaces are not inherently good or bad. They are just tools. BCIs could offer tremendous benefits to people injured by injury or illness. But they also harbor considerable dangers. the richest technology company on earth invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Develop better BCIs because they are betting that BCIs will be the next disruptive technology in the world. If they are right, we cannot trust these companies to regulate themselves.

Earlier this year, a group of neuroscientists and ethicists did recommended that the United Nations set up a commission to look at how BCIs and other neurotechnology should be monitored and regulated. At the international and national level, governing bodies should begin to take protective measures to limit the collection, use and dissemination of neural data.

In addition to taking advantage of BCIs, we need to make sure we have the means to protect ourselves from companies with any incentive to use this technology – and the inner workings of our own brains – for their financial gain.

Rebecca Schwarzlose is a cognitive neuroscientist researching the developing brain at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of “Brainscapes: The Warped, Wondrous Maps Written in Your Brain – and How They Guide You”.

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