Where to draw the line on technology



With technology continuing to evolve at a fast pace, opinion columnist Drew Hill explains the benefits and risks of some of the brain computer interface (BCI).

DREW HILL, Opinion Columnist

Technology is developing rapidly. The changes we’ve seen in the last five years would have shocked people just fifty years ago. As technology changes, we are seeing many benefits. The average lifespan of people is dramatically increasing. We have entered a new age of convenience that is unprecedented in the history of the world.

However, with benefits come risks and drawbacks. In a world where almost everything is online, identity theft, plagiarism and hacking is becoming harder and harder to combat. As we weigh the benefits and risks of new technology developments, there is a question we should consider: is there a line we just shouldn’t cross, no matter what the benefits may be?

There are many fields on the edge of developing technology that could be used to consider this question. Artificial intelligence replacing jobs and causing massive job loss is a possibility. The ethics of certain technology in the medical field could also be interesting. However, to narrow it down for this article, I would like to focus in on one that may sound like science fiction: BCIs.

A new field of development: brain-computer interfaces (BCIs)

BCI stands for brain-computer interface. Basically, BCIs measure electrical activity in a person’s brain. BCIs can be classified in several different ways, including invasive, partially invasive and noninvasive. Invasive devices generally require surgery to implant them inside the brain. Noninvasive devices measure the brain’s activity from the surface of the brain. They are often not as effective as invasive devices due to the skull blocking signals, but they are improving.

HCI stands for human-computer interface. This is a type of BCI that does not measure signals from the brain directly. They measure other indicators, such as eye movements.

According to a study from the National Library of Medicine published in November of 2021 entitled, “CyberEye: New Eye-Tracking Interfaces for Assessment and Modulation of Cognitive Functions beyond the Brain,” BCIs implanted on the brain’s cortical surface can already communicate letters, words and sentences with punctuation. Some speculate that it will soon be possible to read abstract thoughts. While HCIs based on eye movement tracking are not as effective yet, some researchers believe it can test memory comprehension, reading comprehension and consciousness.

Benefits of BCIs

Research on the brain’s electrical activity has been going on for a long time, but the research has mostly focused on disabled patients or those with brain injuries. The benefits are enormous. People unable to move can type out words on a computer through their thoughts. It can greatly improve communication for those with major brain injuries. It can help blind people see.

More recently, research has also included the idea of not just helping those who are disabled, but also enhancing the lives of people in a variety of other ways, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review by Alexandre Gonfalonieri. For example, it could be used to detect drowsiness in drivers to bring down the number of car crashes. It can help detect attention level, allowing people to improve their focus and reduce stress to accomplish more work. Managers could monitor their employees’ focus levels. Eventually, people could write files by thinking about it or use “pass thoughts” instead of passwords.

Risks of BCIs

This all may sound like something far down the road, but this technology is on the doorstep. It is already being implemented in some of the above ways. However, the idea may also scare you, and for good reason. There are a myriad of risks associated with this type of technology becoming widespread.

For example, once you give a computer access to your thoughts, a hacker could steal your brain data. Others could be able to essentially read your mind. Employers could access their employee’s brain data and use it for personnel decisions. Certain companies could require the use of BCIs for employment. 

Considering that this is still new technology, there will be glitches. These machines are not perfect. If they misread brain data, it is possible that bad decisions could be made based on that brain data. Finally, another concern is that the technology could manipulate brain data, potentially causing harmful changes to a person’s actual brain or making decisions for them.

Technology is changing and developing, whether we like it or not. We have to adjust. However, I think there is a point where we have to think about the risks and draw a line which we don’t cross. BCIs are not going away. They can be very beneficial in some ways, and some people are going to choose to embrace them. However, you have to weigh the risks for yourself and decide whether to embrace or avoid new developments like this. Hopefully, people always have the freedom to make that choice for themselves.