What Scares Me About Brain-Computer Interfaces (Being Able to Control Computers With Your Brain)

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I’m not entirely terrified of them. I actually think it’s really freaking cool to be able to make a ball roll with just your mind.

To be completely honest, I love the idea of a brain-computer interface. What excites me the most is just the plain sci-fi-ness of it all. One of my favorite novels, Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds, features characters with neural implants that allow them to communicate telepathically. As someone who loves all things futuristic and AI, the prospect of being able to control technology using just one’s mind (can you say telekinesis dreams finally realized?) and being able to download vast amounts of information is just thrilling to me.

Aside from the day-to-day fun benefits, there are the more practical applications like treating brain disease and damage caused by a stroke. We already have electrode implants (albeit not in the brain) that help amputees control their prosthetic limbs. This could potentially make the lives of millions of people easier and represent a huge leap forward in medicine.

But that being said, my list of concerns is decidedly longer than my “oh-my-gosh-it’s-so-cool” list.

1. Privacy. My number one concern. Technology of any kind can always be hacked. If we advance to the point where we can send a text message with our brain alone, what’s to stop the hacker next door from decoding our signal and intercepting our bank account information when we buy that bathing suit online? And before you say “there will be safe-guards in place for that,” remember that Facebook, the world’s largest platform for connecting online, was hacked in late 2018. Technology always has to upgrade their security because hackers upgrade right along with them. Which leads me to point number two:

2. Social media. I think most people would agree that social media has reached new and unparalleled levels of integration with our lives. I’d even go so far as to say “interference.” Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, and the other monolith social media giants out there already monopolize most of our time, not to mention the constant barrage of updates. I have no doubt that once brain-computer interfaces are realized, technology will continue to progress at such a pace as to incorporate social media accessibility in virtually no time at all. How long would it take before we can access these apps with our minds entirely…before we can view augmented reality with our handy dandy neural implants connected to our optical nerve and see a hologram projected in front of us — one that only we can see? Now how would you break your social media addiction? Who’s to say what’s going on in your Instagram DM’s now? This also leads me to point number three:

3. Independence vs. Neuromarketing. Social media platforms and web browsers use algorithms to tailor ads to you, based on your recent search history, likes and in some cases, messages that you’ve written (first-hand experience here, it’s kinda scary, not to mention annoying). I’d argue it’s not outside the realm of reason to be concerned about marketers mining your brain for keywords to tailor ads to you. Imagine having a random thought about hot dogs and not being able to escape ads for Oscar Meyer and Hebrew National for the next two days. In your brain.

4. Health Concerns. While it looks like most of the population has no problem sporting wireless headphones or smart watches (myself included), there has been a lot of concern about radiation affecting our bodies negatively. To be fair, it’s literally impossible now to avoid radiation in some form or another — we’re bathed in a sea of WiFi, 4G and 5G bandwidths and unnatural electrical currents daily. Unless you wrap yourself in tin foil or carry around special radiation-canceling crystals, you’re bound to end up with more than your fair share of it. The brain is a delicate balance of electrical signals, firing away and controlling literally everything in your body. What happens if the implant misfires, or worse, shorts out entirely? How would that affect your brain?

5. Surveillance. In America, the implementation of the Patriot Act after 9/11 allowed the government to tap our phone calls and monitor us in ever-increasingly intrusive ways, all in the name of preventing terrorism. If we reach the point of mapping the entire brain, decoding what types of brain signals mean which thoughts, and have a functioning brain-computer interface, what’s to stop Big Brother from declaring he needs to have 24/7, random and unrestricted access to our neural devices, all in the name of “nipping terrorism in the bud?”

I realize that a lot of this sounds like sensationalist hogwash with a dash of conspiracy and a whole lot of theory. But these are genuine concerns I have. With the rapid advancement of technology, many things that have only been dreamed of or lightly tossed around in science fiction novels have actually come to be. We could one day be facing one if not several of the situations I outlined above.

Just the same, the potential for great good is definitely there. Imagine a child who lost a limb is able to regain fine motor control skills and sensation using a prosthetic arm — able to play normally and develop exactly as they should. Imagine a 50-year-old stroke patient able to regain use of their body and speech skills when they otherwise would have been relegated to embarrassment or needing help for the rest of their life.

With great knowledge comes great responsibility. We’re making historically unparalleled strides in technology, and we have to be careful to make sure that they result in safety and good for all those involved, both in the development and the application of the technology.

Otherwise, are we even worthy of using it?

This post was inspired by a question on Quora that someone requested I answer.

Ellice Peck