A brain-computer interface is a machine that connects a human brain to a digital computer. It lets the person’s brain send and/or receive information to/from the computer. This would allow a machine to analyse parts of the brain, send information to the brain for the person to have in their memory, or to download their thoughts and memories onto the computer. It could also help to study and heal the brain of various illnesses, and even improve it. Many people suffer from untreatable mental illnesses that such a system could cure. There are however also negative possibilities associated with such a system.
Communication Theory- Summary
Humans are not psychic, and we need ways to communicate with each other. This is what is known as communication theory. In this theory, there are multiple objects:
- Sender– the person who is trying to communicate by sending a message
- Information– what the sender wants to tell the other person
- Language– this is how the sender takes the information and processes it into a form that others can understand. English is one such language, but so is math.
- Message- This is the result of having formulated the information into language.
- Medium– the sender has to send the message somehow to the receiver. This can be verbal, written, etc. This also involve the conversion of an abstract message into a physical medium. By speaking we are sending a message in the form of sound waves. By writing it down, we send it in the form of matter or colour that other people can see.
- This also means we need to use our mouths to speak, or our hands to write, to generate the physical message.
- Receiver– the person to whom the sender is sending the message
- Medium– The receiver uses their eyes or ears to receive the message and turn it into an abstract thought. By doing this they can recognise it is a message, and their brain figures out what letters and words the sound waves or physical writing are conveying. They take the physical message and convert it into an abstract one.
- Language– the receiver analyses the abstract message by knowing the language used to encode it and using that language to determine the meaning of the message.
- Information– The receiver interprets the meaning of the message, and now they have the same information the sender has.
The information the receiver gets is not always the same that the sender had. The information can be distorted or lost at multiple points in this process:
- When the information is encoded into a message using language. By doing so, the message might have lost some of the information, since languages are not perfect for representing abstract information. Depending on the language used, there might not exist words for certain ideas. The sender might use the wrong word, thinking it meant something else, or they might use an ambiguous word that is difficult to determine the meaning of, or prone to misunderstanding.
- When the message is sent through a physical medium. It might be hard to hear, or the sender might slur their words. The sound waves or writing might be difficult to understand, so the receiver might not recognise what words are being used.
- If the sender and receiver are not using the same language, it might be impossible for them to communicate. This extends not just to English and other traditional languages, but to the level of vocabulary used, and the register used. Most people will not understand technical science terms, even if they are in English.
- The receiver might have a different definition or connotation of a word, or of the tone of a message that could make them think the information is different than what the sender intended.
This model shows at which points errors might occur.
Lying, Hiding Information, and Privacy
Because our communication is imperfect, we do not always know what other people really mean. This allows us to hide information from others, and to lie and give them misinformation. While this is often used maliciously (and I would argue they are always to some degree bad), it also means we can have our own personal thoughts that only we know about. It lets us surprise people and have a personal sense of self. It’s analogous to having privacy in your own home, without being watched or judged by others. Privacy is good, as we are individual people and don’t always want to be social.
While lying or hiding information is bad, and is often used to hurt others, it can also protect people. Bad people may lie for their own interest or to hurt others, or both, but good people can also defend themselves from bad people with it. We can protect people by not revealing who they are to the people who might want to hurt them. Military, intelligence, government and private organisations sometimes try to extract information from people through interrogation, torture, or psychological attacks. In these cases, they are going against many human rights, especially the right to privacy. They do this because they want the information that person has, but cannot access it because of our limitations explained by communication theory. We can avoid these infringements on our rights and privacy by lying or hiding that information.
People can look at our private documents, our diaries, they can watch us to figure out what we do or what we like, they can hack our phones and our computers and invade our privacy in many ways, getting a hold of a lot of information that we might have wanted to keep secret or personal. What has always been a safe place to have privacy that no one can access has been our minds. Communication theory shows us that our thoughts cannot ever be accessed be force. We can keep something completely secret by keeping it in our minds.
What a Brain-Computer Interface Would Do
With a brain-computer interface, we will no longer have any privacy left. Our minds can be scanned down to the very finest detail. We will not even be able to think about standing up to oppression, let alone have plans to do so. An oppressive group can not only figure out who is trying to overthrow them by taking one of the rebels and scanning their brain to see who they know is part of their rebel group, but they can also figure out who dislikes them, who is having thoughts of maybe rebelling, etc. We will no longer be able too hate our job but pretend we like it, we will no longer be able to even consider other options without people knowing about it.
Some might think that such a world without any secrets would be better since there would be no discrepancies or ambiguity. Thee would be no lies or lack of information, so we wouldn’t make any mistakes based on that. We would also have the knowledge that other people have, so we’d be able to make better decisions and be wiser. However, if only some people have access to people’s personal thoughts, memories, and emotions, then only they benefit. This is not the same as a society that can read each other’s minds and understand each other better, this is one where anyone’s mental privacy is vulnerable. Most people would not benefit from this. We would become entirely decipherable, accessible, predictable objects for those with power to analyse and control. We would lose any form of a private self, and become exposed for others, potentially nothing more than a computer or a toy to them.
If such an interface can affect the brain, then it might be possible to control or reprogram the game too. This leads to a person becoming a tool, which you could eliminate the free will of or simply make them want to do what you want. You could erase or change their memories. This means you could force people to be your slaves, your soldiers, your family. You could manipulate anyone and control the world. This goes in direct violation of the human rights of political, physical, and mental freedom. This is a potentially world ending, highly immoral outcome. Such technology could efficiently eliminate any opposition to yourself, making you extremely powerful and dangerous. Should this ever happen, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to fight against it.
Why You Should Care
This is of course hypothetical, but it shows that the risk is real. This might not be happening, but we still need to make sure it does not happen. If the United States loves their guns so much because they want to be able to fight back against an oppressive government, then they should also be wary of a government that can blackmail, successfully interrogate, reprogram, pacify, know and control anyone. Any form of resistance movement would fail if the government can use the system on people involved in the movement. They would have instant spies, saboteurs, or traitors, or they could just turn the whole movement to their side. Only an attack on such a government that did not allow them to use this technology would work, severely limiting the options and strategies of such a movement, forcing them into immediate and direct action to not give the government time to find the rebels. A guerilla or underground movement would not work since they would never be able to hide who they are or where they are. A long term war would give the government time to get to and turn the members. An advanced brain-computer interface is a threat to individuals, society, democracy, and the world.
Technology should be controlled to avoid dangerous uses of it. We must actively and consciously steer technological advancement to regulate, monitor, and if possible avoid immoral technology. If we let advancement run wild, simply creating for the sake of creating, or worse, for money, then we allow any and tools to be made, including those that can harm us. There are many people who, if given the opportunity, will do harm to others. It’s unwise to let them. It’s easy to shrug it off as impossible or unlikely, but that’s arrogance and confidence. Theres little reason to take the risk.
Our brain is the only truly private thing we have, it makes us who are we.