Brain-com­puter in­ter­face us­age

Sus­tain­abil­ity and tech­nol­ogy

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Na­dia Boachie Neu­roethics

Un­til re­cently, the con­cept of con­trol­ling your en­vi­ron­ment through thought was purely sci­ence fic­tion. It was only 1968 when Eb Fetz, a re­searcher at the Cen­ter for Sen­so­ri­mo­tor Neu­ral En­gi­neer­ing (CSNE), first pi­o­neered con­nect­ing ma­chines to minds. He showed that mon­keys can am­plify their brain sig­nals to con­trol a nee­dle that moved on a dial.

To­day, the field of brain- com­puter in­ter­face (BCI) tech­nol­ogy has al­lowed peo­ple to func­tion­ally merge with elec­tri­cal de­vices. BCI tech can as­sist in­di­vid­u­als un­able to speak in com­mu­ni­cat­ing, and those un­able to use their limbs re­gain mo­bil­ity. At the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh, re­searchers used sig­nals recorded in­side the brain to con­trol a ro­botic arm. At Stan­ford, re­searchers ex­tracted the move­ment in­ten­tions of par­a­lyzed pa­tients from their brain sig­nals, al­low­ing them wire­less con­trol of a tablet. The most com­mon BCI tech gad­gets are cochlear im­plants, de­vices that as­sist with hear­ing.

What is brain- com­puter in­ter­face tech­nol­ogy?

Matthew Sam­ple, a re­searcher at the In­sti­tut de Recherches Clin­ique de Mon­treal ( IRCM) notes that the def­i­ni­tion of BCI is con­tested: “Even the name is in flux, with some re­searchers writ­ing about ‘brain-ma­chine in­ter­faces’ and ‘neu­ral in­ter­faces.’” Some re­searchers only ap­ply the la­bel BCI to de­vices that re­quire the users to “will” some­thing, reg­u­lat­ing their thoughts to con­sciously achieve some task with the help of a com­puter. Other BCI de­vel­op­ers are more flex­i­ble in their def­i­ni­tion and also in­clude de­vices that only pas­sively col­lect in­for­ma­tion from the user’s brain. Sam­ple con­cludes that “def­i­ni­tional dis­agree­ment aside, we could safely say that BCI de­scribes a va­ri­ety of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies that con­nect brain tis­sue to com­puter hard­ware.”

So by cur­rent def­i­ni­tions, BCIS in­clude all de­vices that con­vert neu­ral sig­nals into pur­pose­ful move­ments, for both med­i­cal and non-med­i­cal pur­poses. Restora­tive de­vices like neu­ro­pros­thet­ics help par­a­lyzed pa­tients move ro­botic limbs. In gam­ing, BCIS can al­low play­ers to move around and ma­nip­u­late ob­jects within vir­tual game en­vi­ron­ments us­ing thought alone. What’s more, BCIS also in­clude de­vices that en­hance sen­so­ri­mo­tor func­tion­ing past the typ­i­cal range of hu­man ca­pac­ity (i.e. en­hance­ment or aug­men­ta­tion).

How does brain-com­puter in­ter­face tech­nol­ogy work?

Uni­di­rec­tional and mul­ti­di­rec­tional trans­fers of in­for­ma­tion be­tween the com­puter and the brain take place in brain- com­puter in­ter­faces. BCIS can use a wired or wire­less sys­tem to al­low trans­mis­sion of sig­nals from the brain to a ma­chine. Non- in­va­sive BCIS like elec­troen­cephalo­gram or func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing do not in­volve in­tracra­nial surgery nor any im­plan­ta­tion in the brain. How­ever, in­va­sive pro­ce­dures like elec­tro­cor­ticog­ra­phy usu­ally in­volve the im­plan­ta­tion of elec­trodes epidu­rally ( un­der the skin), sub­du­rally (un­der the scalp), or in­tra­cor­ti­cally ( record­ing within the cere­bral cor­tex).

With the in­ven­tion and us­age of such tech­nol­ogy comes the dis­cus­sion of its moral and eth­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions. There are chal­lenges in trans­lat­ing BCI tech­nol­ogy to prac­ti­cal clin­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tions. Two of the ma­jor chal­lenges in wide­spread BCI use are in­di­vid­ual user risks and wide­spread so­ci­etal risks and con­cerns.

User risks

In­va­sive pro­ce­dures like elec­tro­cor­ticog­ra­phy carry risks of in­fec­tion or hem­or­rhage. As a re­sult, there may be scar­ring and im­mune re­ac­tions, and this can cause im­plants to lose ef­fec­tive­ness over time. An­other ma­jor is­sue is the bio­com­pat­i­bil­ity be­tween the im­planted ob­jects and the sur­round­ing neu­ral tis­sue. The im­planted ob­ject may cause changes in the tis­sues, in turn lead­ing to neu­ro­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal se­que­lae (a patho­log­i­cal con­di­tion re­sult­ing from a dis­ease, in­jury, ther­apy, or other trauma).

There is also the risk of al­ter­ing cog­ni­tive pro­cesses such as de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Sam­ple ex­plains that how a BCI af­fects be­hav­ior, de­ci­sion-mak­ing, and cog­ni­tion is still largely un­known. But “the bio­med­i­cal lit­er­a­ture has some very strik­ing ex­am­ples of strange ef­fects, like per­son­al­ity changes caused by par­tic­u­lar uses of deep brain stim­u­la­tion.” The un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing po­ten­tial ef­fects of BCI on the brain is a ma­jor con­cern be­cause long-term ef­fects to the user have not been thor­oughly re­searched.

There is a long stand­ing de­bate about whether or not struc­tural or ge­netic ab­nor­mal­i­ties in the brain can mit­i­gate re­spon­si­bil­ity over our ac­tions, lead­ing to “my brain made me do it” ar­gu­ments. The use of BCI tech­nol­ogy can cre­ate nu­anced claims: “my BCI tech­nol­ogy made my brain make me do it.” BCI works to de­code sig­nals from the brain and trans­late them into com­mands to an out­put de­vice that ac­com­plishes the user’s in­ten­tion. If the BCI mal­func­tions, it be­comes dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine if the user’s in­ten­tions were ac­cu­rately trans­lated into an ac­tion. BCIS may cause ac­ci­dents. For ex­am­ple, if a BCI in­cor­rectly in­ter­prets a wheel­chair or pros­the­sis com­mand and causes harm to an­other in­di­vid­ual, it is dif­fi­cult to pin­point the true in­tent of the in­di­vid­ual that caused harm. This would have an in­flu­ence in le­gal dis­putes. There would have to be new laws and reg­u­la­tions to clar­ify poli­cies re­gard­ing BCI tech­nol­ogy and le­gal cul­pa­bil­ity. Le­gal cases would have to an­a­lyze the ini­tial ail­ment (in cases of med­i­cal use), as well as the in­flu­ence that a par­tic­u­lar BCI tech­nol­ogy has on cog­ni­tion re­gard­less of, or in com­bi­na­tion with, a med­i­cal con­di­tion.

So­ci­etal risks

In­va­sive BCIS pose the most ob­vi­ous risks to the users, but we should also ask whether the tech­nol­ogy could be a threat to the body politic. Sam­ple demon­strates that “just as we have asked whether the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia have made us bet­ter, col­lec­tively, we can ex­plore these ques­tions for BCIS.” It is worth ex­plor­ing the fea­si­bil­ity of in­te­grat­ing BCI seam­lessly into med­i­cal treat­ment and health­care sys­tems.

A spe­cific ex­am­ple of a so­cial con­cern of BCI im­ple­men­ta­tion is the health­care ra­tion­ing of BCI tech­nol­ogy. There may be risks to health care jus­tice about the fair dis­tri­bu­tion of these very ex­pen­sive tech­nolo­gies. Jus­tice not only per­mits but in prin­ci­ple re­quires a na­tional health scheme to deny some peo­ple of ef­fec­tive med­i­cal treat­ment they need. Ra­tion­ing is un­avoid­able be­cause need is lim­it­less and re­sources are not. If there is wide­spread BCI use, ques­tions about who to treat and what BCI tech­no­log­i­cal ser­vices to offer will have to be ad­dressed. How ra­tion­ing of BCI tech­nol­ogy oc­curs is im­por­tant be­cause it not only af­fects in­di­vid­ual lives but also ex­presses what val­ues are most im­por­tant to so­ci­ety; for in­stance med­i­cal treat­ment of dif­fer­ent dis­or­ders listed in order of prece­dence.

Many of these risks are fu­ture­ori­ented and thus largely spec­u­la­tive, but Sam­ple notes that “so is the act of imag­in­ing new neu- ral tech­nol­ogy; the ques­tion is whether we have spec­u­lated care­fully and in co­op­er­a­tion with the peo­ple most likely to be af­fected.” There is no doubt that BCI tech­nol­ogy can pro­vide use­ful med­i­cal treat­ments, but it will re­quire a lot of reg­u­la­tions. The con­cern lies with de­cid­ing if the risks of the BCI are worth the risks of detri­men­tal neu­ral changes. There also needs to be bet­ter eval­u­a­tion of po­ten­tial so­ci­etal con­cerns. In this eval­u­a­tion there needs to be in­clu­sion of ex­pert opin­ions as well as the opinion of the di­verse pub­lic that will be af­fected. There is still a lot of re­search that needs to be con­ducted, but the hope is that be­fore new BCI be­comes rou­tinely used, there would be proper anal­y­sis of both in­di­vid­ual user risks as well as the broad spec­trum of so­ci­etal risks.

The field of brain-com­puter in­ter­face (BCI) tech­nol­ogy has al­lowed peo­ple to func­tion­ally merge with elec­tri­cal de­vices.

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