The rapid development of the sphere of brain-machine interfaces and neuroprosthetics gradually leads us to a revolution in the methods of treatment and support of paralyzed people. At the same time, these technologies in the future can find a more universal application and become a starting point for the further evolution of mankind and its transition to a new species – cyborgs. But before we reach such heights, we need to make sure that such neural devices are completely reliable, safe and completely protected from external influence – hacker attacks, if easier.
With dreams of our bright cybernetic future, researchers from the Geneva-based Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Wyss Center in Switzerland published their work, Help, Hope and Hype: Ethical Dimensions of Neuroprosthetics, on the Science portal. The task of its authors is not only to describe the opportunities that the neurotechnology will open up to us, but also to raise public awareness of the dangers that may lie in wait for us on this road to a super-tech future. And it is important to note that the authors have developed several ways that will mitigate potential problems before they occur.
Not to mention the rapid development of neurotechnologies is becoming impossible today. Engineers and researchers are actively developing and improving brain-machine interfaces that will allow paralyzed people to regain control of their limbs, amputations – effectively manage the robotic prostheses, and patients with impaired speech functions to restore ability through the ability to transfer their thoughts. Surprisingly, there is already great progress in this direction. Scientists have created an exoskeleton, allowing a person with paralyzed lower limbs to hit the ball. A paralyzed laboratory monkey was taught how to operate a wheelchair with the help of thoughts. Developed interface “brain-brain” allowed a person to control the movements of the limbs of other people. Each such technological breakthrough allows us to learn a little bit more about the brain and how it works. But more importantly, all these technologies have the potential to return amputees and paralyzed people independence and independence.
It’s time to say hello to the future: Human-controlled robots, as in the picture above, are already beginning to enter our everyday life.
But all of these technologies, unfortunately, have a downside. As John Donohue, Director of the Center for Wyss, points out, serious ethical questions begin to emerge around this area, and therefore it’s time to start thinking about how the neuroprosthetics and the development of brain-machine interfaces can face abuse in the future, and how protect yourself.
“Despite the fact that we still do not fully understand how the brain works, we are getting closer to the moment when we can adequately decode certain brain signals. Therefore, we must be aware of the impact that all this can have on society, “comments Donohue, going on to say, “We must carefully analyze the probable consequences of living side by side with semi-intelligent machines controlled by the human brain, and must have ready developed mechanisms that can convince us of their safety and compliance with our moral and ethical standards.”
The center of Vissa is concerned that with the wider integration of these neuro devices into our daily lives, the capabilities of these tools will also expand. They will become more universal. Already, brain-machine interfaces can be used to control a robotic arm, grab a cup or, looking at the computer screen, select a certain word in the text. But someday such devices, only more advanced ones, will be used as an emergency worker to eliminate a dangerous gas leak, as well as the mother of a child who does not have enough extra hands to calm her crying baby.
If something were to go wrong in these cases, for example, a semi-automatic robotic hand of a worker will turn the wrong tap or mother accidentally drop from the robotic arms of your child, it is important to ask yourself the question: where does the zone of responsibility begin and end and who in such cases should be found guilty ? The legal system of the future will have to determine whether this is in the area of responsibility of the manufacturer of the robotic product (the design found a marriage or a software error) or the user (improper use or external unauthorized influence on the integrity of the product design).
To minimize such potential problems, the authors of the work discussed today suggest that any semi-autonomous system be equipped with an automatic blocking function and, in the event of improper or unplanned use, be activated bypassing the direct brain-computer interaction channel. If the artificial limb begins to perform actions that the user did not mean to perform, then such a “switch” can independently decide on an instantaneous deactivation of the system, preventing potential trouble.
Another aspect of concern for researchers is the safety of the user’s privacy and the need to protect any personal information that will be recorded by such systems. It is very likely that systems based on the brain-computer interface will collect a wide variety of information about the neurological status of the user, after which it will be transmitted to the computer. Naturally, such a scheme can not but cause some concerns about the protection of confidential data. According to the researchers of the Center Vissa, the collected information can be stolen and used improperly.
“The protection of private neurological information about people completely paralyzed and using the brain-computer interfaces as the only possible means of communication with the outside world is especially important,” says Niels Birbaumer, senior research fellow at the Vissa Center.
“Successful calibration of the systems working with the brain-computer interface will, in addition, depend on how their brains react to personal issues related to their family, for example, the name, age and marital status of children and so on. For all people involved in this case, a strict system of protection of personal data must be provided, which will be required for the correct functioning of the device functions. This is both information that will be clarified with the help of personal questions, and neurological information of the patient. “
Even more strongly researchers from the Center of Viss are concerned about the possibility of digital hacking of a device connected to the brain by intruders, which can actually endanger the life of the user of this device. With the help of the so-called “breaking of the brain”, malicious manipulations with brain implants can be made. Hackers will be able to gain control over the movements of human robotic limbs.
A possible solution to this problem will include an increased level of encryption of information, the creation of reliable network security and an open communication channel between the product manufacturer and its user. The implementation of most of these proposed measures will be a very difficult task, at least in connection with the likely lack of universal standards that will be used in security systems. Proceeding from this, experts of the Center Vissa consider that now it is time to start thinking about the ways that will allow all to coordinate and develop universal industrial standards for developing and integrating the necessary protective measures.
“Some of the fears pointed to by the authors of the work may one day turn into real problems. Therefore, I agree that the development of certain universal standards is necessary now, so that later we do not find ourselves in a situation when it will be too late, “says Adam Kuiper, a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Ethics and Public Opinion.
Still, Kuiper, who did not take part in the writing of the work under discussion, is partially skeptical about the option that someone at all will want to hack the brain-computer interface of a completely paralyzed person or an interface used as a channel for back neural communication between a person and training systems , that is, programs that use non-invasive methods of brain scanning, such as electroencephalography machines, systems for training their behavior, reducing stress, meditating second and so on.
“What benefits can a hacker get from such a hacking? Yes, almost no. Certainly, concerns about security and the protection of personal information can be an important subject in the future. But it seems to me that this is a premature conversation. “
Caper adds that the increased degree of fear associated with the introduction of brain-computer interfaces and semi-autonomous robots can be compared with the level of anxiety that arises in society about global robotization, which promises to be the next step in the development of our social life. And while Kuiper agrees with some aspects, in his opinion, in general, the problem, at least now, seems more far-fetched than real.
“The authors of the work believe that we should not significantly increase the medical literacy of the population and its awareness of the characteristics of the functioning of neurophysiological systems that will be used for such types of prosthetics. But this is nonsense, “says Kuiper.
In his opinion, the society itself is unlikely to show increased interest in such highly specialized topics. Still, the expert recognizes that it is often very difficult to find the right time to start a public dialogue on ethical and social issues about the mass integration of new technologies in our daily lives.
“There is always a risk to make such statements too soon, when we ourselves still do not really understand until the end whether there is really a serious problem facing us. Such precedents have already been. To take at least nano-ethics, whose supporters a decade ago did not really understand the issue, made a noise, saying that advanced nanotechnology will appear almost instantly, and even tried to build on this a real academic discipline. But in the end it turned out that the development of nanotechnology is a much more flexible and smooth process. “
“I think that from this point of view the authors of the work discussed today can only be praised. Praise for the fact that they express their fears are not radical statements, but quite calm explanations, “- commented Kuiper.
Undoubtedly, the researchers of the Center Vissa raised a very important topic. Sooner or later, the technologies described today will find a way into our daily life and will serve as a support not only for the incompetent, but also quite healthy people.
In the future, non-invasive brain-computer interfaces can be used to create a kind of telekinetic connection with the world around us, in which we can manage our lighting in our house or at least switch TV channels. In other words, further progress will be able to turn these technologies into a technological kind of telepathy. As for the researchers at the Vissa Center, their key message is that we are ready for this and could prevent the use of such technologies for malicious purposes.