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Studies Outline Key Ethical Questions Surrounding Brain-Computer Interface Tech

x-ray shows electrodes implanted in a human brain
Image credit: Hellerhoff.

Brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies are no longer hypothetical, yet there are fundamental aspects of the technology that remain unaddressed by both ethicists and policy-makers. Two new papers address these issues by outlining the outstanding ethical issues, offering guidance for addressing those issues, and offering particular insight into the field of BCI tech for cognitive enhancement.

“BCI technologies are devices that detect brain signals conveying intention and translates them into executable output by a computer,” says Allen Coin, a graduate student at North Carolina State University and lead author of both papers. “BCI technologies can also provide feedback to the user, reflecting whether he or she attained a goal or completed a desired action.”

“BCI devices can be non-invasive devices that users wear, or they can be invasive devices, which are surgically implanted,” says Veljko Dubljević, an assistant professor in NC State’s Science, Technology & Society program and co-author of both papers. “The invasive devices are more efficient, since they can read signals directly from the brain. However, they also raise more ethical concerns.

“For example, invasive BCI technologies carry more associated risks such as surgery, infection, and glial scarring – and invasive BCI devices would be more difficult to replace as technology improves.”

Many BCI devices, such as cochlear implants, are already in use. And this field of technology has garnered increased attention due to a company called Neuralink, which is focused on building what it calls a brain-machine interface.

“Neuralink highlights the immediacy of these ethical questions,” Dubljević says. “We can’t put the questions off any more. We need to address them now.”

And Dubljević would know.

He, Coin and NC State undergraduate Megan Mulder recently published a comprehensive review of the research literature that addresses ethical considerations of BCI. A previous review had been done as recently as 2016, but almost as much research had been done on the ethics of BCI since 2016 as had been done before 2016.

One of the key take-aways from the analysis is that there are two areas that ethicists have not adequately addressed and that should be prioritized for future work: physical effects of BCI and psychological effects.

“On the physical side, there’s been little analysis by ethicists of the potential long-term health effects of BCI on users,” Coin says. “There’s also been inadequate discussion of ethical considerations related to the use of animals in testing invasive BCI technologies. These are, after all, surgical operations.”

On the psychological side, researchers found reason for concern – but a lack of ethical analysis. For example, one study evaluated the use of invasive BCI to give patients with epilepsy advanced warning of seizures. While some people adjusted well to the technology, others reported experiencing radical psychological distress.

“This is an issue that must be addressed,” Dubljević says. “We also need to assess questions on the extent to which users feel the BCI is an empowering extension of their minds, as opposed to challenging their sense of self. These are big questions, not afterthoughts.”

“Another thing our review really drove home is that the ethical analysis of BCI has been done by ethicists who are writing almost exclusively for other ethicists,” Coin says. “As a result, little of the work is framed in a way that is directly relevant – or even accessible – to policy makers and the public.”

The researchers also laid out a constructive framework for guiding future research on the ethics of BCI. At its core is one overarching question: “What would be the most legitimate public policies for regulating the development and use of various BCI neurotechnologies by healthy adults in a reasonably just, though not perfect, democratic society?”

“That question is long, technical, and steeped in scholarship of ethics and policy of new technology, but it’s critical to guiding the development of BCIs,” Dubljević says.

In a separate paper, Coin and Dubljević explored issues related to authenticity and machine-augmented intelligence. In this context, authenticity refers to the extent to which an individual feels that their abilities and accomplishments are their own, even if those abilities are augmented by BCI technologies, or their accomplishments were made with the assistance of BCI technologies.

“And machine-augmented intelligence refers to BCI technologies that enhance cognition – which are not yet on the market,” Dubljević says. “However, they are clearly a goal of BCI developers, including Neuralink.”

In this paper, the researchers were focused on the fact that there have been very few concerns about authenticity in the context of cognitive enhancement BCI technologies, despite the fact that these concerns have come up repeatedly in regard to other cognitive enhancement tools – such as drugs that can improve concentration.

In other words, if ethicists care about whether people on “smart drugs” have “earned” their test scores, why don’t they have similar concerns about BCIs?

The answer appears to be twofold.

First of all, the majority of the proposed cognitive enhancement BCI devices are therapeutic in nature.

“When a patient receives a cochlear implant, that’s a BCI that helps them hear,” Coin says. “Nobody questions whether that patient’s hearing is authentic. Similarly, cognitive enhancement BCI devices are often presented as similarly therapeutic tools, helping patients overcome a challenge.

“However, we are now hearing more about the potential for BCI devices to enhance cognition in ways that go beyond therapeutic applications, yet there is still limited debate about their authenticity,” Coin says. “We think that this is because these BCI technologies are generally envisioned as being implants, which means the device would effectively be a permanent – or semi-permanent – change, or even an extension, to a person’s mind. These aren’t drugs that wear off. They’re there to stay.”

“Ultimately, these two papers get at some of the big questions that we need to address as a society about BCI technologies,” Dubljević says. “The technologies are coming whether we’re ready or not. How will we regulate them? Who will have access to them? How can they be used? We need to start thinking about those questions now.”

The first paper, “Ethical Aspects of BCI Technology: What Is the State of the Art?,” is published in the journal Philosophies. The second paper, “The Authenticity of Machine-Augmented Human Intelligence: Therapy, Enhancement, and the Extended Mind,” is published in the journal Neuroethics.


Note to Editors: The study abstracts follow.

“Ethical Aspects of BCI Technology: What Is the State of the Art?”

Authors: Allen Coin, Megan Mulder and Veljko Dubljević, North Carolina State University

Published: Oct. 24, 2020, Philosophies

DOI: 10.3390/philosophies5040031

Abstract: Brain–Computer Interface (BCI) technology is a promising research area in many domains. Brain activity can be interpreted through both invasive and non-invasive monitoring devices, allowing for novel, therapeutic solutions for individuals with disabilities and for other non-medical applications. However, a number of ethical issues have been identified from the use of BCI technology. In this paper, we review the academic discussion of the ethical implications of BCI technology in the last five years. We conclude that some emerging applications of BCI technology—including commercial ventures that seek to meld human intelligence with AI—present new and unique ethical concerns. Further, we seek to understand how academic literature on the topic of BCIs addresses these novel concerns. Similar to prior work, we use a limited sample to identify trends and areas of concern or debate among researchers and ethicists. From our analysis, we identify two key areas of BCI ethics that warrant further research: the physical and psychological effects of BCI technology. Additionally, questions of BCI policy have not yet become a frequent point of discussion in the relevant literature on BCI ethics, and we argue this should be addressed in future work. We provide guiding questions that will help ethicists and policy makers grapple with the most important issues associated with BCI technology.

“The Authenticity of Machine-Augmented Human Intelligence: Therapy, Enhancement, and the Extended Mind”

Authors: Allen Coin and Veljko Dubljević, North Carolina State University

Published: Oct. 24, 2020, Neuroethics

DOI: 10.1007/s12152-020-09453-5

Abstract: Ethical analyses of biomedical human enhancement often consider the issue of authenticity — to what degree can the accomplishments of those utilizing biomedical enhancements (including cognitive or athletic ones) be considered authentic or worthy of praise? As research into Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology progresses, it may soon be feasible to create a BCI device that enhances or augments natural human intelligence through some invasive or noninvasive biomedical means. In this article we will (1) review currently existing BCI technologies and to what extent these can be said to enhance or augment the capabilities of the respective users, (2) describe one hypothetical type of BCI device that could augment or enhance a specific aspect of human knowledge — namely, mathematical ability, and (3) relate these concepts to the active externalism view of the extended mind as espoused by Clark and Chalmers in order to (4) argue that knowledge of mathematics derived from the usage of a BCI and the application thereof constitutes authentic knowledge and achievement.

This post was originally published in NC State News.