Scientists warn of a "dark" future, when companies will own personal thoughts, and the world is divided into cyborgs and people

Scientists warn of a "dark" future, when companies will own personal thoughts, and the world is divided into cyborgs and people
Scientists warn of a "dark" future, when companies will own personal thoughts, and the world is divided into cyborgs and people

Scientists at Imperial College London have warned of a "grim future" associated with the commercial use of brain-computer interfaces. If left unregulated, this technology could lead companies to collect our deepest thoughts, they said.

Several big tech companies, including Facebook and Microsoft, as well as tech investors like Elon Musk, are funding projects to study the use of brain-computer interface (BCI) devices to determine neural connections. US government agencies are also exploring the use of this technology.

In a new study published in the journal APL Bioengineering, university scientists analyzed the state of BCI research. They raised the alarm about the potential commercial exploitation of our innermost thoughts and feelings and warned that the world would be divided on the basis of access to BCI technology.

Study co-author Roberto Portillo-Lara called the ability of corporations to access BCI readings "especially troubling" because "neural data is often considered the most intimate and private information that can be associated with any particular user."

The most likely approach to actually using IBI is electroencephalography (EEG), a relatively inexpensive, non-invasive method for monitoring electrical activity in the brain. In hospitals, it is used - through a hat with electrodes attached to the scalp - to diagnose epilepsy and other diseases.

The researchers argue that EEG-based BCI (eBCI) systems will "profoundly change" industries such as healthcare, entertainment, safety, education and marketing in the "near future." However, Portillo-Lara warned that EEG data could also give companies "unprecedented insight" into a person's "intentions, preferences and emotions."

One recent example of BCI is the Facebook-funded "speech neuroprosthesis" project, which uses surgically implanted electrodes on the surface of a participant's brain to create computer models of "speech recognition" and word usage.

In a blog post earlier this month, the company reported that the project allowed a person who had been unable to speak after a series of strokes 16 years ago to communicate again. This was done by converting his attempts to speak into words on the screen.

However, the project is still far from the tech giant's stated goal of creating a system that "can type 100 words per minute straight from your brain." Perhaps unsurprisingly, Facebook said it was dropping funding for the project to focus on the product that has the best short-term sales potential - a virtual reality wrist controller that reads muscle signals from the user's brain to the arm.

Last year, BCI technology company Musk Neuralink announced that it had implanted a chip in a pig's brain to study its neural pathways - with the ultimate goal of creating "Fitbit in the skull" human implants that would allow sharing memories and telepathically summoning Tesla vehicles.

Meanwhile, US military research arm DARPA is reportedly developing BCI technology to create super-soldiers that can control "swarms of drones at the speed of thought." In 2017, the agency was awarded a contract to better understand how brain interface technology works, and potentially build a device capable of communicating with a million neurons at the same time.

This is due to the fact that, as the researchers warn, it can lead to the separation of the world into augmented and natural.Study co-author Riley Greene said policymakers and regulators must address the "dilemma" of commercializing BCI to avoid this "bleak prospect."

The study authors said there are lessons to be learned from the commercialization and global impact of innovations such as the internet and smartphones. These examples show that “strict” laws need to be enacted to ensure that BCI technology is used ethically and safely.

In addition, they recommended that the technology be shared and readily available to prevent the exacerbation of “current socio-economic inequalities”.

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