A Reflection on Brain-computer interfaces: Ethical challenges and opportunities

brain_computer interfaceFacilitated by Kevin Measor, PhD, Gonzaga University, and Jen Wroblewski, MPH, NWABR on April 10, 2018

In a packed room at the back of a popular Spokane pub, we gathered not for a birthday party or alumni gathering. Undergrads, science-enthusiasts, medical students, business owners and professors wedged into a crowded pub to talk about the emerging technology of brain-computer interfaces (BCI). Dr. Kevin Measor, faculty at Gonzaga and founder of the Spokane Center for Public Neuroscience Education, led the discussion.

The ability to record brain activity and use this information to control devices like computers, wheelchairs, and brain stimulators is a goal of brain-computer interface (BCI) research. With this technology comes great promise to improve people’s lives, but will the introduction of BCI devices into medicine and beyond raise ethical concerns? What brain data is private? Will these devices lead to human enhancement? Who will have access to expensive BCI devices? Will this technology raise questions of identity and what makes us human?

We tackled three key scenarios that illustrate currently available technology: (1) Deep Brain Stimulation (used to treat tremor in patients with Parkinson’s Disease) to treat mental/behavioural health issues, (2) Neuroprosthetics capable of interacting with the brain and prosthetic limb and (3) Neurofeedback recordings used to measure states of awareness in long-haul truck drivers.

Scenario #1. Should deep brain stimulation be used to alter undesireable, non-pathologic behavior? What about mandated treatment for pathologic behavior? Most agreed that if the science is solid, DBS should be offered but that no treatments should be forced on people. People did perceive a difference in mandated mental health treatment using medication versus DBS because of concerns that DBS may not be irreversible or that it may have in intended consequences.
Scenario #2. People with neuroprosthetics use their new limbs to restore, as best they can, what they have lost. There is an argument that BCI prosthetics actually enhance, rather than simply restore, the health of a user. In the case of athletes we wondered whether individuals using BCI prosthetics might have an advantage if they could program their ‘robo-limb’to resist fatigue, improve reaction time, etc. Most thought it would be more fair to offer separate competitions for people with BCI prosthetics. We were concerned though that BCI prosthetics will be more costly than traditional prosthetics, which are already 20-40K each. Access to this technology will be tricky, as will repairs to the hardware when it needs refurbishing.
Scenario #3. By far people were most interested in this scenario where long haul truck drivers would be monitored for their state of consciousness/awareness using a hat embedded with EEG sensors. The sensors would send real time data to a control center to judge whether a driver is in a dangerous, sleepy state and would then order the driver to stop driving and rest. Similar technology may be useful for other professions such as soldiers and medical professionals working long shifts. As a group we were split on the legality and usefulness of BCI for this purpose. It raised more questions than answers. For example, who is legally responsible in the event of a truck accident or medical mistake? Isn’t this an invasion of the employee’s privacy? Others felt that BCI could provide useful tools for employees in sleep-deprived professions to self-assess their job safety and provide data to justify changes in company policies. In the end, we arrived at a universal bioethics dilemma: which is more important….individual rights (autonomy) or public safety?

BCI has the power to restore individual agency, reduce suffering and improve human performance. On the other hand it raises concerns about privacy, access and power. Like any good discussion all we could say was…..IT DEPENDS.


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