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Research and Innovation

The Future Is Now: Wrestling with Ethics, Policy and Brain-Computer Interfaces

a glowing brain hovers in front of a metallic backdrop
Image credit: Milad Fakurian.

Devices that allow computers to interface with the human brain are already here – close to 200,000 people have cochlear implants in the U.S. alone. And a wide range of additional brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies are in development. As these technologies become more common, so do questions related to ethics and policy – with agencies from the Federal Trade Commission to the FDA already facing regulatory decisions about BCI devices.

A new book, Policy, Identity, and Neurotechnology: The Neuroethics of Brain-Computer Interfaces, explores these issues and more. The book was co-edited by Veljko Dubljević, an associate professor at NC State who leads the NeuroComputational Ethics Research Group; and by Allen Coin, a former graduate student at NC State.

To learn more about what BCI devices are on the horizon, and the questions those technologies raise, we spoke with Coin and Dubljević.

The Abstract: Before we talk about the book itself, I have a threshold question: What exactly are BCIs? How common are they? Can you give me some examples?

Allen Coin: In short, BCIs are a class of technology that can read and translate brain activity into a format digestible by a computer. BCI devices use brain activity as input to provide some sort of output, or to pass information back to the user as feedback – sometimes directly to the user’s brain. These devices have a lot of applications in medicine and are increasingly being adapted for widespread commercial use.

For instance, there are BCI devices in clinical trials that can warn a user when they are about to have a seizure. And you may know somebody with one type of BCI device that has been around for a long time: the cochlear implant. This technology is rapidly advancing, with a lot of investment from commercial ventures that aim to popularize this technology for everyday use – perhaps BCIs will become as common as smartphones. Some private ventures have lofty goals for BCI commercialization, including Synchron – which recently received FDA approval for human trials – and Neuralink, a company that has a knack for making headlines and which has a stated goal for achieving human-AI symbiosis, among other very sci-fi applications.

Not every commercial application of BCI will require embedding a computer chip in your brain, however – some private ventures seek to use non-invasive BCI technology, like a modified electroencephalogram (EEG) which can read brain activity via sensors you can wear like a hat. One such venture, Neurable, is working on a product that aims to put BCI sensors into a pair of headphones that can help the user optimize their own productivity. For example, it might let users know when to take breaks.

TA: The book is subtitled “The Neuroethics of Brain-Computer Interfaces.” What sort of ethical questions do BCIs raise?

Veljko Dubljević: In our prior work, we mapped the landscape of ethical challenges arising from the introduction of BCI technologies. We characterized these challenges according to recurring themes of ethical concerns that were noted by ethicists: physical factors (relating to user safety and harm to humans or experimental animals), psychological factors (relating to autonomy and changes in humanity or personhood) and – the most diverse – social factors (relating to issues such as stigmatization of users; privacy; informed consent; responsibility; and fairness). There are also novel ethical issues which arise when BCIs are combined with computer-to-brain interfaces to allow direct communication between two or more brains, thus comprising brain-to-brain interfaces. Such new technological forms of communication may lead to information overload and radical psychological distress, at least for some people. Thus, serious consideration needs to be given to the vulnerability of individuals and groups and how they may benefit (or be harmed) by these technologies.

TA: What about policy challenges? Are there regulatory requirements in place governing BCI technologies? Should there be? And who would, or should, be doing the regulating?

Dubljević: There are many policy challenges. For instance, the BCI technology is falling under inconsistent levels of oversight. On the permissive end of the scale, you have things like cases of wearable BCIs, where more or less the Federal Trade Commission has jurisdiction and will interfere only if producers start using too much hyperbole in their promotional materials. At the more stringent end of the scale you have cases of implantable BCIs, where the Food and Drug Administration needs to be satisfied that the BCIs are safe and effective. Another challenge is that current guidelines for research ethics usually don’t apply to “market research” and yet this is exactly the area with the most exciting developments. Finally, there are unknowns about downstream effects of widespread implementation of BCI technology, which could be pertinent for regulation.

TA: Does your book focus solely on what we already know about ethics, policy and BCIs? Or are you also laying out recommendations for the path forward? If there are recommendations, what are they?

Coin: Our book doesn’t just cover what’s already known about BCI policy and ethics. The book also considers potential, realistic near-future applications of the technology, what ethical considerations those applications could have, and resulting policy implications. For instance, one developing area of research in BCI, which may seem like science fiction, is the use of BCI to enable direct brain-to-brain interfacing.

One of the key recommendations discussed at length in the book is the need for ethicists and policymakers to keep abreast of the rapid advancements in this technology that are taking place in the research, engineering, and commercialization spaces. Given that the stated goals of some private investment in the technology are to develop sci-fi applications like mind uploading or brain-AI symbiosis – regardless of how feasible such applications may be – this suggests a potential future path for this technology that could be rife with unique new challenges to our social norms and legal system. While we try to present a picture in this book of BCI that is cautiously optimistic, rather than alarmist, there is nevertheless a theme that it is important to keep in front of the rapid advancements in this technology from an ethics and policy perspective.

TA: Why write this book now?

Dubljević: The field of BCI technology is now migrating from being almost entirely limited to academic research labs into a mainstream social phenomenon. With significant increases in computational power and sophistication of machine learning, BCIs are increasingly promising (or threatening) to become a fixture of the new “human condition.”

Coin: Building on that, another important reason for this book – and for scholarship into the ethical, legal and social implications of BCI in general – is something I alluded to in the previous question: it is possible that the commercialization and popularization of BCI technology could make BCIs as commonplace and ubiquitous in the future as the smartphone is today, and it’s important to consider the potential societal effects of such a scenario. I’d pose a question of my own here: If a technology company were to ask you if you’d like to have a computer chip implanted in your brain, what would be your response? And why? This book could help us, as a society, prepare to answer that question.