Unite our mind with computers

The brain-machine interfaces have some years in research. The data they generate is already a matter of concern.

Elon Musk’s statements that warn about how it could threaten humanity itself are well known in the community of innovators. Elon Musk believes that Artificial Intelligence can make humans relegated to the role of domestic cats. With this in mind, the South African entrepreneur and innovator founded the Neuralink startup, which aims to investigate how human beings could connect our brains to computers. So far, this is an idea that has produced good science fiction stories – such as the Star Trek or San Junípero Borgs of Black Mirror – but no technology that can be mass-commercialized.

The brain-machine interfaces have some years in research. BrainGate is one of the research groups that have made the most progress on this topic. This team from Brown University has developed and tested medical devices to restore communication, mobility, and independence of people who have suffered neurological diseases such as cerebral palsy or coma. 

These technologies represent a qualitative leap in human-machine communication. However, they still carry high risks, such as the danger of infection due to the operation necessary to install the device. With this in mind, Musk has decided since 2017 to support the investigation of less invasive methods through Neuralink, although he had not disclosed the company’s objectives until this year.


Elon Musk recently presented his new project.

PayPal founder Elon Musk is not the only one who has been interested in the development of so-called brain-machine interfaces. The company founded by Mark Zuckerberg has also invested in the research of this technology to make it interpret neuronal activity and translate it into words in real-time. 

Other companies have worked on the development of this technology for ethical purposes, such as Kernel, Emotiv, and Neurosky. The advances are significant and have begun to change people’s lives: In recent years, patients with cerebral palsy have received implants that have allowed them to move the computer pointer or control robotic arms.

New rights for our brains

These are very recent technologies, but specialists anticipate the ethical problems that may arise. Where do we establish how far we are ourselves, and when does the activity of a machine begin? These concerns have led to talk about the “jurisprudence of the mind.” 

In Latin America, Chile is the pioneer country in this area. Neuroscientist Rafael Yuste has encouraged lawmakers to vote in November for a reform that allows the protection of information in the brain as a human right.

In Europe, ETH Zurich researcher Marcello Ienca has pushed for economic block legislation to move in the same direction. This researcher presented an article in which he highlighted four basic principles for the era of neurotechnology

“I am very concerned about the marketing of brain data in the consumer market,”

Marcello Ienca, a neuroethical researcher at ETH Zurich

Ienca recently confessed to Vox its concerns about these technologies, such as the use that could be given to our brain data. “I don’t talk about a distant technological future. There is already neurotechnology for the consumer, with people who trade with their brains data for private technology services.” 

Among the commercial uses that exist today, Ienca has mentioned neurogaming, where you control the movements of a video game with the activity of your brain instead of traditional control. There are also wearable devices that monitor sleep activities. “I am tempted to call it neurocapitalism,” says Ienca.

The new rights for the brain

Ienca proposes new human rights to anticipate the use that this technology may have and thus protect people’s privacy. The essential objective of this rights it’s to protect people from any abuse or mishandling of their data.

The right of cognitive freedom  

You must have the right to freely decide when you want to use a specific neurotechnology or when to refuse to use it.

Ienca offers two current scenarios in which people may feel pressured to use neurotechnology. In China, the government tests caps that scan brain activity to identify depression, anxiety, anger, or fatigue. In this case, if an employer wishes to monitor your attention capacity with this technology, this could represent a violation of this principle even if they tell you that it is optional, due to the social pressure to use it. 

The right to mental privacy 

You must have the right to isolate your brain data or to share it publicly.

Ienca anticipates the possibility that this technology can be used for interregotaries or research. In a world where authorities can get into your mind without your consent, the principles against self-incrimination or keeping silent are meaningless.

The right to mental integrity 

You must have the right not to be physically or mentally damaged by neurotechnology.

Ienca anticipates the possibility of using computer-brain interfaces that have a “writing” mode and that allows – in theory – to control our mind or do brainwashing, such as religious authorities who want to influence the faithful, or regimes politicians who persecute dissidents.

These are hypothetical scenarios, although Ienca points out the possibility has been demonstrated in the proof of concept studies.

The right to psychological continuity

You must have the right to protect yourself from alterations that affect your sense of identity and that you did not authorize.

A company gave an epileptic woman a device that made her feel part of a radical symbiosis. However, the company went bankrupt and forced the woman to take off the transplant, which made the woman think that “she had lost herself.

For Ienca, this example shows that psychological continuity can be disturbed not only with the use of this technology but also with the removal of the devices.