This morning I went to a talk about devices which interface directly between the brain and computers. By way of an introductory remark Louise Marston noted that “for thousands of years humans have wanted to be able to communicate directly from one brain to another, which of course we can, by witting.” This set the tone for a discussion about the topic of technologically extending the functionality of our bodies.

The panel all agreed that it is a mistake to imagine that using (for example) brain implants to communicate with computers represented a sea change in our sense of self.

Anders Sandberg pointed out that we already use contact lenses and clothes to extend our personal capacities. What makes the ideas such brain implants alarming is that they represent a ‘transgression’ of our physical bodies. However, as Anders continued to point out, this transgression “makes good posters for films” but isn’t actually that practical, mostly because the dangers of infection and medical complication.

Instead he favoured subtle, low level interaction between brain and computer. He gave the beautiful example of his relationship with his laptop – he can subconsciously tell if the hard drive is ok from the noise that it makes.

Other examples include MIT’s “Sixth Sense“, while Professor Kevin Warwick showed a photo of a device that allowed users to get messages from their computer via tiny electric shocks on their tongue. Probably not to everyone’s taste.

Optogenetics a new approach again. This involves altering your genetic code so that your neurons respond to light and then shining a laser through your cranium to manipulate your brain’s behaviour.

While some of the technologies under discussion are not even on the lab bench yet, one technology already in medical use: Deep Brain Stimulation to treat Parkinson’s. An implant electrically stimulates the thalamus which reduces the  symptoms of the disease. Some patients go from being unable to dress themselves to being able to drive again. Impressive stuff, but it also reifies a moral thought experiment. Some people who use the device experience personality changes, for example becoming compulsive gamblers. Who would be responsible if the a patient had a personality change and went on to commit a crime? The device manufacturer, the surgeon or the patient? One guy is already suing his doctor because of gambling spree he claims was bought on by medication. 

Perhaps if we had more debates about these kinds of moral dilemmas we’d have a more nuanced understanding of what’s at stake. It drove me nuts during the riots that _every_ news presenter had to ask anyone that said anything explanatory about the cause of the riots “Are you making an excuse for them?”. Surely we can have a more sophisticated understanding of morals than that discourse seemed to indicate.

The panel itself had some interesting characters. Anders Sandberg comes from the grandly titled Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, which is also home to a philosopher I particularly like –  Nick Bostrom. He’s very entertaining, I seem to remember that he did stand up for a while.  Bostrom also responsible for a confounding logical conclusion through his simulation argument.

Professor Kevin Warwick has had all manner of things implanted in him – a sure sign of commitment to your work. He told us he has a graph of the electrical activity associated with the onset of Parkinson’s on his living room wall to keep him focused on his work. Presumably he has a very understanding wife too – some of his experiments have included her, for example wiring their brains together to facilitate direct electrical communication. I once wrote a short story about exactly this. Unfortunately it’s not very good; I hope their experience went better than my short story.

Throughout the whole talk there was a tendency to wander between brain-computer interfaces and the subject of artificial intelligence. It seems to me that there isn’t really an obvious link between the two, except that they both endanger our sense of self. In many ways this is the most fascinating aspect of the technology. Most people distinguish between using technology to restore function that’s been damaged by disease or a car accident and the more treacherous moral territory where technology is used to exceed our ‘normal’ abilities.

We discussed that the use of a notebook as a memory aid would be could be considered a synthetic extension of our natural abilities, and that no one considers this to have moral implications. However, as I write this I’m quite happy to take advantage of a spell checker and my notebook.

It would feel weird if the computer started improving my prose by suggesting eloquent synonyms, or perhaps advised me that the above “not to everyone’s taste” pun is an execrable crime and should be deleted immediately. When computers, through implants, other types of brain-computer interfaces or artificial intelligence start doing things that we consider uniquely human – like creativity and punning – I think it really will cause us to radically reconceptualise ourselves. In this sense, I wonder if examples of using clothes or glasses to enhance ourselves are misleading, because they don’t strike at core concepts at what it is to be human. Or perhaps we’ll just get over it.

3 thoughts on “Brain computer interfaces – NESTA Hot Topics Talk

  1. Very good review, thank you for posting as I was not able to attend and your review paints an excellent picture. In my network spaces we often use ‘augmented reality’ methods including Virtual Worlds. The development of low-cost microcontroller and sensing technology brings the User Interface opportunities to the Personal Business level and, indeed, such interactions are already being used by body hackers for input and output interfacing.We can expect brain sensing to move from a simple skull cap to implants for everybody as quickly as the smart phone has replaced the landline telephone.

  2. Hello Jimmy, you asked about my ‘spaces’, they not so exotic, but are very interesting.I mix in a variety of technical spaces, and I also review news of interest to the ppl I meet via a regular podcast Mikes ( HomeCreative and Tech Spaces Show. ) One group are producing a low-cost microcontroller ( ) that is being used to link sensors to the cloud, home automation and virtual reality ( group are using the likes of the Nanode to connect to art works and bodywear, and yet another are working with 3D Printing and Personal Manufacturing. Being based near Reading I am familiar with the interesting implant work of Kevin Warwick and a lot of Hackspace members are interested in various UI methods, though most are not implanted, some like the recent ‘electronic tattoos’ are body based.I am happy to provide more info on any of this for anyone who is interested.Rgds MikeTheBee


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