Your brain data is the new natural resource in town, and these tech companies desperately need access to it.
In 2009, Facebook introduced a groundbreaking new feature in its Newsfeed home page. One that many considered as an attempt to interrogate our minds. Whereas the former feature asks, “What are you doing right now?” the current version asks, “What’s on your mind?”. Facebook wants to know what’s on your mind, and for 10 years we have been doing just that—pouring out our minds on Facebook, knowingly or unknowingly. But now, Facebook can’t wait for you to pour out your mind. It wants to get into your mind to figure it out. To put it more succinctly, Facebook wants to create a device that can read your mind—literally.
At the 2017 Facebook’s annual developer conference F8, Facebook announced plans to build a non-invasive, brain-computer interface (BCI) wearable device that lets people type by simply thinking words. “We are working on a system that will let people type with their brains. Specifically, we have a goal of creating a silent speech system capable of typing 100 words per minute straight from your brain – that’s five times faster than you can type on a smartphone today”.
Well, this is no longer a dream. The company recently revealed for the first time how far it’s come in its quest to make such a device a reality. It claimed that it has achieved real-time decoding of speech by just examining readings from its brain-computer interface device. However, there are plenty of areas that still need work—especially considering the Facebook’s goal of “real-time decoding speed of 100 words per minute with a 1,000-word vocabulary and word error rate of less than 17 percent”. Facebook’s long term goal is to give everyone the ability to control digital devices—from keyboards to smartphones to augmented reality glasses—using the power of thought alone. To do that, the company will need access to your brain data.
Interestingly, Facebook is not alone in the quest to read your mind. In fact, mind-reading technology is the new frontier of exploration. Companies like CTRL Labs, Kernel, Paradromics, Brane Interface founded by a 16 year old, and Neuralink Corporation founded by Elon Musk are all working in this space. Musk has said he ultimately aims “to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” His goal is to develop a technology that enables humans “merging with AI” so that we won’t be “left behind” as AI systems become more and more advanced. For now, the general invasiveness of BCI—implanting electrodes in or on the brain—significantly limits the commercial potential of this tech for now. But companies like Facebook are researching noninvasive methods, like a system using near-infrared light that could detect blood-flow changes in the brain while staying outside of it. The 16-year-old founder of Brane Interface is taking on big companies like Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink to develop a low-cost, compact brain-computer interface that can operate without the need to be in direct contact with the brain but instead worn within headphones.
With the growing capabilities in big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning and consumer-directed neuro-technological devices, tech companies may soon know a lot more of what’s happening in the human brain. Our brains are about to be hacked. “Big brain data” is the new natural resource in town, and these tech companies desperately need access to it. Which, of course, raises serious ethical concerns. Our brains are perhaps the final privacy frontier. They’re the seat of our personal identity and our most intimate thoughts. Merging the human brain with a computer would completely redefine what it means to be human forever. What does this mean for our freedom and what kind of protections do we need?
The average person thinks thousands of thoughts each day, creating concurrent electrical discharges in characteristic patterns that can be measured with electroencephalography (EEG)-based Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI). These wearable devices can literally see inside the human brain and learn aspects of our mental landscape without ever uttering a word. I think it’s safe to say that with the current rate of progress in this area, more and more of what’s happening in the human brain including our thoughts can and will be decoded over time. Already, using one of these devices, an epileptic can know they’re going to have an epileptic seizure before it happens. A paraplegic can type on a computer with their thoughts alone.
During the 2018 edition of Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nissan unveiled a new technology called ‘brain-to-vehicle’ system (a wearable headset) that reads your brain to prevent accidents. Who knows, maybe one day we will trade our brain data for access to certain websites or social media accounts, or for discounts on insurance, or even to keep our jobs. Workplace employee brainwave monitoring is already a reality in China according to South China Morning Post.
How would a world of total brain transparency look like? Who would dare have a politically dissident thought? It may not be far-fetched to imagine a society in which people are arrested based on their thoughts of committing a crime? People will self-censor in fear of being discriminated by society based on their political, religious or sexual inclination long before they were ready to consciously share the information with other people. If our brains are just as subject to hacking, tracking and aggregation as our everyday online activities, then we’re on the brink of a dangerous threat to our collective humanity.