Bioethics Blogs

Helping or hacking? Engineers and ethicists must work together on brain-computer interface technology

A subject plays a computer game as part of a neural security experiment at the University of Washington. Patrick Bennett, Author provided

In the 1995 film “Batman Forever,” the Riddler used 3-D television to secretly access viewers’ most personal thoughts in his hunt for Batman’s true identity. By 2011, the metrics company Nielsen had acquired Neurofocus and had created a “consumer neuroscience” division that uses integrated conscious and unconscious data to track customer decision-making habits. What was once a nefarious scheme in a Hollywood blockbuster seems poised to become a reality.

Recent announcements by Elon Musk and Facebook about brain-computer interface (BCI) technology are just the latest headlines in an ongoing science-fiction-becomes-reality story.

BCIs use brain signals to control objects in the outside world. They’re a potentially world-changing innovation – imagine being paralyzed but able to “reach” for something with a prosthetic arm just by thinking about it. But the revolutionary technology also raises concerns. Here at the University of Washington’s Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) we and our colleagues are researching BCI technology – and a crucial part of that includes working on issues such as neuroethics and neural security. Ethicists and engineers are working together to understand and quantify risks and develop ways to protect the public now.

Picking up on P300 signals

All BCI technology relies on being able to collect information from a brain that a device can then use or act on in some way. There are numerous places from which signals can be recorded, as well as infinite ways the data can be analyzed, so there are many possibilities for how a BCI can be used.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.