🔬 Research summary by Angshuman Kaushik, Researcher in AI Policy, Governance and Ethics.
[Original paper by Yi Zeng, Kang Sun and Enmeng Lu]
Overview: Although brain-computer interface (BCI) technology has a great future ahead, but at the same time, it is not free from risks and other ethical concerns associated with it. This paper offers suggestions on ways to develop human-centric and sustainable BCI that leads to overall progress.
BCI is an interdisciplinary field of brain science and artificial intelligence which can be divided into invasive, semi-invasive and non-invasive. According to the researchers, invasive BCIs, such as, micro-electrodes and semi-invasive BCIs, such as, electrocorticography (ECoG), are generally used in the field of medicine, to solve problems relating to cognitive dysfunction for brain injury patients and other brain diseases. However, non-invasive BCIs, such as, electroencephalogram (EEG), near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) etc., are targeted at the consumer market to augment and develop human cognitive functions. As per the paper, BCIs are a disruptive technology that repairs, augments, expands and extends human intelligence and has potential applications, especially in medical treatment and expanding human cognition. It also points out to the fact that the development of BCI is in infancy and future use-cases would have risks associated with it. For example, deep-brain stimulation (DBS) is a BCI technology used to treat Parkinson’s disease, severe obsessive–compulsive disorder and severe depression and the potential risks related to it are wound infection, paresthesia, seizures, intracerebral hemorrhage, hemiplegia, cerebral infarction and iatrogenic harms. Although the paper alludes to the fact that recent progress in the use of BCI technology is encouraging, once it is begun to be applied in mind reading tasks, it will be impossible for individuals to keep their thoughts private, which in turn, would lead to violation of personal privacy and human agency. As such, the researchers pose some pertinent questions with respect to the ethical issues accompanying BCIs and provide recommendations.
Recommendations on Ethical BCI
The researchers propose the following suggestions:
- Privacy protection:- When conducting scientific experiments of BCIs, attention should be paid to the extent to which brain data is collected and analyzed. If user-related disease information, potential health information and other privacy-related information – such as information that users do not want to share, but obtained through BCIs – are acquired, they should be processed reasonably. Further, informed consent should be obtained for procuring and using user-related private information, and appropriate mechanism should be provided for revocation of authorization by users.
- Identity and responsibility recognition:- BCIs may affect people’s perception of the self and personal responsibility, including moral and legal responsibility. Therefore, when applying BCI technologies, especially invasive BCIs to the human body, it is necessary to pay close attention to the changes in users perception of the self, identity and responsibility, and prevent negative impact on human identity and responsibility recognition.
- Autonomy of decision-making:- BCIs should not be used to replace and weaken human decision-making ability when they have not fully proved that they can ensure to keep the risks below the human level. The autonomy of human decision-making and judgment should be respected and maintained.
- Safety and security:- BCIs can cause infection, headaches and other injuries to humans due to device implantation or interfaces with the devices. It can also be exploited due to technical loopholes or design defects in its equipment, and is also prone to failure. Therefore, key techniques need to be open and transparent to reduce potential risks. The stability, safety, security, adaptability and reliability of BCI devices need to be continuously improved to avoid design flaws, which may cause negative side effects to other human beings and the environment. Reasonable safety and security mechanisms should be gradually designed and implemented to avoid implementation of possible erroneous BCI implantation.
- Informed consent:- BCIs need to clearly inform the users of the potential risks of related products and services and obtain their or their authorized representative’s consent. Users or their authorized representatives have the right to suspend the use of related products and services, and service providers should follow the user’s wishes to make the appropriate adjustments.
- Accountability:- The accountability of BCIs with respect to their design, development, use and deployment is imperative. Key technologies should be open, and the relevant part of the systems should have necessary levels of transparency, explainability and predictability. In addition, the traceability of faults and risks should be ensured.
- Fairness:- BCIs have the potential to enable users to gain stronger cognitive abilities. It is possible to gain a clear advantage in competition with ordinary people who do not have the financial capabilities to use these technologies. Developed areas and people with high-income are more likely to have access to BCIs than ordinary people in backward areas to augment their social superiority, which may widen the gap between the rich and the poor, leading to inequality in employment and education. Therefore, emphasis should be laid to avoid bringing unfairness through introducing BCIs in the areas of education, work, resource allocation and others.
- Avoid bias:- The thoughts and behaviors of those who use BCIs to augment their human intelligence may be different from those who have not applied these technologies. However, no bias should be allowed against people who use BCIs. Relevant users should be fully respected. Their dignity should not be compromised, and all their due rights should be ensured.
- Moderate use:- Many aspects of BCIs are still in the very early stages of their development, especially, their related equipment and algorithms are still being improved. In addition, its long-term impact on humans and society is still unclear. Therefore, the use of BCIs should follow the principle of moderate use. It is recommended that they should be used after careful evaluation, and should be used when necessary, so that the negative impact on humans could be minimized.
- Avoid misuse:- One should avoid applying related products and services without an adequate understanding of the potential negative effects of BCIs. One should also avoid improper application without understanding the scope of application of related products and services.
- Multi-stakeholder governance:- The involvement of different stakeholders is required in the discussion pertaining to the ethical issues of BCIs.
- Prohibition of abuse and malicious use:- The following shall be prohibited:
- use of BCIs in such a manner that it violates the dignity and fundamental human rights;
- use of related technologies to undermine social stability, trust, justice, unity and peace;
- malicious application of related technologies and services to engage in illegal activities or seek improper benefits;
- using loopholes in related technologies and services to engage in illegal activities or seek improper gains; and
- users using BCIs to avoid their own responsibilities.
Between the lines
BCI is a very good example of an emerging technology that is going to have a profound influence upon society in the coming days. It has uses in several industries, including health and wellness, gaming, smart cities, military etc. However, some of the BCI applications raise legal and ethical issues. For instance, BCIs process neurodata, which is generated by the nervous system and which when linked to an individual, becomes personal data. Hence, it is germane to note here that the absence of ethical considerations will significantly reduce the public’s confidence and trust in accepting BCIs. In fact, a lot of work remains to be done in understanding the potential risks of BCIs. Therefore, any hurried effort in commercializing BCIs in sensitive and critical areas, without studying its adverse effects, can cause irreparable damage to the society.