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The Brilliant Curse: Brain-Computer Interfaces and Societal Digitalization

Over the course of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing extended liberty of time, individuals have similarly become drawn to their electronic devices for longer durations as well as integrated their handheld devices increasingly into their day. In response to the shifting parameters of normality, all sectors of the consumer society have been adapting at a continuous rate of streamlining technology that is in sync with the continuing development of new health guidance. As society and its affected members endure the post-pandemic reality of abandoning a previous reality, centered primarily on interconnectivity, individuals have increasingly fled to virtual stores, from games to apps, to distract or distort reality through augmented reality(AR). The introduction of a computer generated perceptions into an interactive environment, the technology that guides AR, does not come of a revelation as many have interacted in some forms through minute inventions, such as filters on Snapchat. Rather, the increased rate of adoption and societal sentiment towards becoming sentimentally closer with illusionary realities has resulted in consumer-purchased devices being primarily in wearable technologies, namely wristbands. In developing the computing power of machines to better understand the human species,the most significant challenge with programming has arisen from the emotional components of the brain, where human-constructed ideals and values do not possess a code. In an attempt to further integrate the benefits of technology, brain computer interfaces (BCI) represent a new opportunity for companies to innovate products and curate services for industries to revolutionize the consumer experience. 

In contrast to the conception of computers being human run, Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) are defined as a technological system constructed to interoperate with a human mind; Whereby the machine will process and analyze the data received and produce an output based on information the machine has deduced from the human’s brain wave. In essence, BCIs are an attempt for technological pathways to substitute the human central nervous system (CNS), which transports neurons from the brain to muscles in order to stimulate a function, and vice versa. 

Depending on the focus of complexity, BCI’s primarily operate in three formats ranging on the degree of exposure to the brain organ; The three categorizations of the system are (1) invasive (2) semi-invasive and (3) non-invasive.Although BCIs perform the universal function of measuring activity within the brain, the level of embeddedness correlates to the level of effectiveness for the device, where the invasive form enables for a BCI to be connected directly to the human through an individual’s brain neurons. 

Through the course of developing the technology, there have been several key advancements in all variants of BCI to foreshadow a prospective future for the device to be further embedded into society. Initially, BCIs were developed and funded in 1970 as a United States military research project, specifically under DARPA’s Brain Initiative, which continues to promote further scholarship into better understanding brain trauma and the induced motor functions, known as paralysis. Through invasive methods of implanting the technology, BCI demonstrated its ability to understand the brain signals and symbolized a hope for treating paralyzed victims of neurodegenerative diseases. One of the most prominent examples of BCI and its positive uses are Stephen Hawkings, who at age 21 was diagnosed with a slowly progressive and rare disease known as Lou Gherig’s disease. Through his life, Hawkings gradually declined in human functionality and ultimately was unable to move nor speak. An alternative breakthrough was discovered by developing a  non-invasive form of BCI in 1986 which ultimately enabled Hawking to utilize facial muscles for a computer to analyze and produce a digital text.

In addition to the medical uses of BCI, a multitude of private corporations have taken an interest into better understanding the technology in order to apply BCI to the current internet of things. Companies have increased funding significantly to harness the power of technology and expand the horizons of augmented reality seen through wearable devices. Of the most promising companies, Nueuralink was established by Elon Musk with a mandate to research neurological disorders and discover its solution, which as of August reported a breakthrough by showcasing a communication demonstration between a pig and computer.

Along with comparatively revolutionary technologies, BCI presents a stepping stone towards further-disruptive forces across industries, however the digitization of intimate human experiences equally reveals concerns of unintended consequences. Although BCI has varying degrees of invasiveness, the digital nature of BCI lends the technology to vulnerability of an external threat. While the nature of BCI seeks to gather, analyze and perform tasks from sensitive information of the brain, these positive-seeking functional tasks equally serve as significant threat, as gathering and storing vast quantities of private information lends itself to a potential exploitation of its uses. These concerns have grown significantly from the cyber attacks that have cost governments and people millions in value and the loss of privacy. Furthermore, as companies are becoming more apt in utilizing BCI to accurately capture electronic signals within the brain, there has become a threat of leveraging personal and sensitive data to companies who seek to dissect the data for commercial implications. Overall, as with previous societal advancement, there are significant risks that an innovation faces, however it must be the role of society to ensure the mitigation of these threats. It is the role of leaders in innovation on the forefront of developing these technologies to consider a framework through which these advancements can perform their pure function without placing human lives and its longevity into peril. 

Ultimately, as society continues to assess the role BCI will have and the level of intimacy we would like revealed, society must recognize the great strides across all fields that technology has ensured. Brain computer interfaces equally have not failed to provide such advancement. BCIs are the technological feat responsible for granting a second opportunity to paralyzed military veterans and the voice behind the brilliant minds, such as Stephen Hawking. It is inevitable that the coronavirus pandemic will bring change into the direction of a technologically-progressive society with BCI being the future. Despite the rapid and successive changes our society continues to undergo, we are poised with the critical task of ensuring these seemingly positive adaptations do not supersede our ethical values.

Works Cited

Shih, Jerry J., Dean J. Krusienski, and Jonathan R. Wolpaw. “Brain-Computer Interfaces in Medicine.” Mayo Clinic. Elsevier Science, June 19, 2015. https://mayoclinic.pure.elsevier.com/en/publications/brain-computer-interfaces-in-medicine. 

Ryczko, Dimitri, and Réjean Dubuc. “Dopamine and the Brainstem Locomotor Networks: From Lamprey to Human.” Frontiers. Frontiers, May 11, 2017. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2017.00295/full. 

Henry, Karen. “Brain-Computer Interface Could Unlock Minds Silenced by Stroke and ALS: Lifespan Institute.” Brain-computer interface could unlock minds silenced by stroke and ALS | Lifespan Institute, March 1, 2017. https://www.lsi.ku.edu/news/braincomputer-interface-could-unlock-minds-silenced-by-stroke-and-als. 

Golembiewski, Lauren. “Are You Ready for Tech That Connects to Your Brain?” Harvard Business Review, September 28, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/09/are-you-ready-for-tech-that-connects-to-your-brain. 

About Lubomyr Velychko

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