Ethics and BCI

It’s been a long time since my last post… and this one is a rather serious one…

It looks like people in the field of Brain Computer Interfaces get more and more concerned about ethics. I find it rather strange because back a few years ago, I think nobody cared. Scientists were just convinced by the technology and did not think about ethics. During the BCI meeting, ethics have been discussed half a dozen of time on various topics such as :

  • who will pay for the access to this technology to disabled people ?
  • is it unfair to train one’s brain with this technology ?
  • is A BCI expert the suited person to inform the locked-in patients about the BCI study, the risks and the benefits ?
  • is a BCI, as assistive technology, a reason for a patient to change his or her end-of-life decisions ?
  • are the risks of invasive BCIs still unknown ?

It was really interesting to think about those raised topics. Interested readers can find more in this survey that we were invited to fill during the meeting.

At the same time, the research seems to focus more and more on invasive technologies and notably ECoG, arguing that it is not so invasive since it doesn’t get in the brain, but just under the skull… Well, I must admit that at first, even if I did not want to go to invasive techniques, I thought that they looked promising and powerful. I am now changing my mind. Indeed, the choice of using this technology instead of surface measures sounds more and more like a technical choice, because we can get better signals, better stability of the BCI and better bitrates. It sounds like researchers appreciate the better results they get this way than processing the surface signal… based on this feeling, I think that ethics should definitely be considered here. Non invasive BCI are totally different than invasive ones in the sense that on one hand, you have a tool that you can choose to use or remove, and on the other hand, you have an additional component which becomes part of oneself.

I believe that the cost of being upgraded with electronics can not be justified by easier signals to process. I definitely admire John Wolpaw for his trust in non invasive approaches. Invasive technologies may probably be a good answer in some circumstances, but they should not be considered just because they work faster and more efficiently than non invasive ones. There is still a lot of place for enhancements of the methods / processings / electronics that we use. And as scientists, I think we should address this and ask that question :
How far should we go in augmented humans” ?

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