Would you like to connect your mind to the internet? Better yet, picture a live stream from your brain to a screen–a theatre of your emotions, memories, and thoughts. As wild as they may seem, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) can make these scenarios a reality.
You may wonder what BCIs are, how they work, and what their uses are. Below, I answer these questions. Then, I address the legal headaches that BCIs cause.
What are BCIs?
BCIs are devices that empower their users to interact with a computer by brain activity only. They would connect our minds to a computer which would give us access to the hardware, processing, and internet functionalities of computers.
There are two types of BCIs:
- Input BCIs. They receive instructions from our brains via our brain signals. The devices then process the instructions and translate them into actionable commands. For example, you’d use the input BCI if you want a computer to search for information on the internet.
You want to know the meaning of the phrase “uncanny valley”. You have a BCI assistant called Cerebro. By thinking, you instruct Cerebro to Google the meaning of the phrase. Cerebro converts your instruction into computer code for the computer to understand. Then, the computer executes the instruction as a Google search.
- Output BCIs. They translate digital information (computer code) into electrical signals that our brains can understand. For instance, once your internet search results have returned, the BCI would convert the search results from computer code into brain signals that you can understand.
The computer returns with the search results from Google. The search results are in computer code format. Cerebro converts the code into brain signals you can understand. Then, you know what the phrase means.
What are the uses of BCIs?
BCIs and Neurolaw
Privacy and data protection
Privacy plays a crucial role in maintaining mental health. It’s a fundamental psychological need that allows us to recover from harm and develop our identities. However, BCIs will access our minds, which will eliminate our mental privacy.
To function, BCIs have to monitor the brain activity of users. Monitoring includes collecting and processing private and sensitive information about their users (brain data or information). In their most sophisticated forms, BCIs can read the minds and identify the contents of thoughts of the users they are monitoring.
BCIs are incredibly invasive. So, the law would need to safeguard mental privacy and regulate BCIs.
If your country has data protection laws, then these laws should protect your brain data to some extent. The laws would probably regard brain data as “personal information” or “personal data”. But, it would be better if the laws specifically defined and covered brain data.’
Freedom of thought, a new category of expression rights
Linked to the right to privacy is the right to freedom of thought. In the past, our thoughts were private and thus inaccessible to anyone else. However, BCIs have changed this phenomenon.
Given the reality that sophisticated BCIs would monitor our thoughts, we would need to change our “inner life”. I think we’d be much more self-conscious about what we were thinking. But, this would have critical effects on our mental health.
In my view, the law needs to expand the scope of the right to freedom of expression to include freedom of thought. Currently, the law doesn’t regard our brain information as an expression. But, when BCIs record our brain information, they move from brain data to the “expression” of thoughts.
Brain-computer interfaces are incredible technologies. They have several uses which will advance humanity in many positive ways. However, as these devices continue to enter the market, there are heady legal issues that we need to think about and address.