Today, advance “brain-reading” technology makes increasingly possible to access an individual’s mental activiy. Although it may sound a bit scary, the reality is that scientists from different fields are already working with sophisticated technologies to “decipher” the bases human thoughts in real-time. Control a computer, move an artificial arm, or obtain knowledge of individuals´ mood and thoughts are just few examples of the advances of neurotechnology. Very recently last summer, Tesla founder Elon Musk, presented to the big public an implantable brain device capable of reading users’ minds.
One interesting question is why “mind-reading” technology could be necessary for our lives? Leaving aside ethical issues, should we worry if modern neurotechnology can figure out what we are thinking?
The role of Neurotechnology in today´s society
Neurotechnology is a fascinating field of neuroscience and bio-engineering in which the brain is interfaced with computer-based devices. Technically speaking, it is defined as an assembly of methods, apparatus, and algorithms enabling a direct connection with the brain. EEG headsets, mind-reading glasses, intelligent bioprotheses, electrode arrays, or implants are just some examples of the diverse neurotechnology emerging around us.
The use of artificial intelligence to support therapy and rehabilitation is perhaps, one of the most noticeable and worthwhile applications of Neurotechnology. Much of these systems – combined with external wearables – are meant to “listen” to brainwaves patterns and “translate” them directly to a computer, enabling for instance, a brain impaired patient to communicate more effectively. Other brain devices can also stimulate specific areas of the cortex to modulated or enhance cognition. Current neurostimulation system have shown to help in restoring cognitive and motor functions in patients suffering from neurological diseases (e.g. Parkinson´s disease) and psychiatric disorders (e.g. depression).
We can say, therefore, that the primary purpose of neurotechnology is either to restore, replace, and enhance the nervous system capabilities.
Three therapeutic horizon
It is clear that brain-reading technology has a therapeutic role in different clinical settings. For this reason, understanding the human brain – how it works, and how it is affected by brain diseases – is becoming more than essential to provide effective treatment solutions. At present, there are three research horizon in this sort of mind-reading technology with short-term therapeutic applications.
A first research horizon is oriented to restoring motor functions in neurological injured patients using more naturistic and integrative neural decoding approaches. For example, the use of multielectrode arrays implanted in specific brain areas (e.g motor cortex) together with wireless computer interfaces, allows researchers to decode a patient’s thoughs and intentions. In a recent study lead by BrainGate lab, the neural activity of three patients with motor paralysis was decoded in real-time allowing them to use common applications (e.g. web browsing, text messaging, email, etc. ) of a tablet. Surprisingly, one patient suffering from paraplegia was able to move with his mind a cursor to select letters on a computer screen.
A second field of research relates with speech recognition. It has been more than a decade since the first computer-based neurotechnology proved its effectiveness in helping people with language or communication impairments. Until recently, a main challenge was to increase the accuracy and automaticity of natural speech or typing. Now, this challenge is on the way to be solved. In a recent study published in Nature, researchers from the University of California San Francisco show a method to decode a speech dialogue in real-time directly from the brain´s cortical activity.
The third growing research field involves cognitive preservation and enhancement. By stimulating the brain with electrical currents, researchers can investigate causal relations between brain activity and particular cognitive functions like attention, math cognition or language processing. Knowing exactly such causality enables to restore or enhance dysfunctional neural circuits linked to a particular cognitive function. These methods can also be used to feed information directly into the brain increasing cognitive capacity or performance. Ongoing research is starting to provide robust evidence on positive effects of non-invasive brain stimulation for treating particular types of neurological and psychiatric diseases (e.g. depression, epilepsy, multi sclerosis).
What information can neurotechnologies decode about someone’s brain activity?
It all depends on the degree of invasiveness allowed by the particular brain device. The so-called non-invasive neurotechnology (e.g EEG, headsets, artificial intelligence), can tell quite a lot of things about someones´ cognitive state and mood. Just to give you a rough idea, it can tell whether a person is experiencing positive or negative emotions, perceiving pleasure, be mentally engaged in a task or having an optical illusion. Some recent EEG wearables can even monitor daydreaming or drowsiness while driving. More sophisticated systems assisted by Artificial Intelligence are able to detect, via powerful sensors, the brain signals sent to internal speech mechanisms, like the larynx or the tongue, when the user speaks to himself (e.g. silent speak).
Although non-invasive neurotechnology has reached acceptable levels of accuracy, a true brain-machine connection capable of high-speed decoding of human thoughts is only possible with neuro-implantable systems.
To understand how an implantable technology works just picture your brain similar to a crowed football stadium. There is a lot of noise there with excited supporters yelling and shouting which makes impossible to get the full meaning of differents ongoing conversations. As you are interested in knowing what is telling the football-coach to the yellow team, a good idea could be to approach a microphone or recorder machine and sent the words via wireless to a powerful loudspeaker. You will realize that even with background noise still around you, the “targeted” conversation is now much more clear to you. An implantable brain technology works similarly. It uses large-scale arrays of micro-electrodes or sensors placed directly in the brain. These microsensors are capable of literally read the electrical pulses of large groups of neurons while canceling the background noise. In essence, this means that our thoughs can potentially be decoded with high accuracy.
The idea of such a level of “mind-reading” is closer than we might think. According to recently published reports, wireless brain-embedded systems will allow the user to virtually control any device, like a robotic limb, a smartphone, or an electric vehicle, by only using their thoughts. A new aspect of these systems with respect to the already existing ones, is their capacity to adapt to people‘s lives in a more naturalistic way (e.g. wireless and durable). Such innovative technology is planned to be tested in patalized patients by neuroscientists of Stanford University in partnership with Neuralink very soon this year. Ultimately, the long-term goal – as expressed by the inventor Elon Musk – is to build a “digital superintelligence layer” to link humans with artificial intelligence.
An example of 2020 new proposed technology uses large-scale arrays of micro-electrodes embedded in the brain. Information from neural threads are detectable outside the head via wireless technology (Image Credit: Neuralink)
What’s beyond the therapeutic horizon?
If we have a look at the mass-media, cognitive and mood enhancement is a widely publicized non-therapeutic application of neurotechnology. However, there is much misinformation that is giving rise to so-called ‘neuro-hype’ and ‘neuro-myths’. Supported by an emerging market of direct-to-consumer non-therapeutic wearables, popular media often use colorful brain images illustrating non-scientific proven cognitive enhancement claims. Careful should be given with this. Until more replication studies are published and better-controlled research shows up, questions about how safe and effective these products are – also at home setting – remains unanswered.
Now, what about assumptions about “mind control” violating people’s privacy?
Before either accepting or rejecting this idea, other more pertinent questions arise first, like who will own the brain data, how it will be regulated, and for what purposes. Candidates to patent this technology eagerly await.
Google and Facebook are examples of companies already using brain-computer technology systems and artificial intelligence to understand users´ intentions. Also, since 2014 a new DARPA research program is developing brain-computer interfaces that could control drones operating at the speed of thought. Just imagine for a while about the impact of this technology on different business segments. Needless to say that profits obviously will be huge. A company or government could theoretically use “mind-reading” information to improve healthcare strategies or to screen people based on their thoughts on the pretext of health protection interests or national security reasons. Can this idea somewhat become more likely in the current global pandemic scenario that we are facing?
While neuroechnology is making huge progress, no legal framework exists yet to prevent — or eventually regulate — the collection of sensitive data about people‘s brains. If “brain-reading” systems are normalized in different spheres in our society, data security, privacy rights and integrity should be legally protected much harder.
Not convinced yet? just have a look at this Microsoft patent published in March 2020.
Then, how to ensure that neurotechnology will help without stripping people’s privacy?
First of all, we should celebrate the science advances and not fear it. The presence of neurotechnology in our lives is unstoppable, that´s the reality. But more transparent information needs to be communicated to society, especially on the different trajectories and the role that neurotechnology might play in peoples´ lives. Some of the issues that require more urgent regulation are brain data privacy and the potential risk of creating new social inequalities. An effective solution could be the development of public-private research partnerships in order to consider the ethical, legal, and social issues of neurotechnology advances. Still, there are economic and social questions raised regarding the spectrum of applications that should be tackled sooner or later in order to anticipate market policies.
In the future, besides helping people with psychiatric and neurological disorders, neurotechnologies will drive every aspect of society. A roadmap for guiding responsible research and innovation in neurotechnology could make the difference towards a better future for all.
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