SARAH VEST – STAFF WRITER
What if you could turn the lights on in your home with no more effort than it takes to think about it? That kind of technology is on its way to the consumer market, and Nita Farahany, today’s morning lecturer, is worried about what that means for people’s privacy.
Farahany is the Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law and a philosophy professor at Duke University, as well as the founding director of Duke University Science & Society, chair of the Duke Master of Arts in Bioethics & Science Policy and principal investigator of SLAP Lab. In 2010, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and served until 2017. Farahany received her bachelor of arts degree in genetics, cell and developmental biology at Dartmouth College, a juris doctor and master of arts degree from Duke, as well as a doctoral degree in philosophy.
Farahany is currently studying neurotechnology, specifically consumer neurotechnology. This kind of technology decodes brain activity and then uses pattern classification — otherwise known as artificial intelligence — to make sense of the data. Her morning lecture at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 19 streamed into the Amphitheater will focus on the extraordinary ways in which people can now access and change their brains, but also the kinds of rights individuals may need to have protected in order to maximize the benefits of neurotechnology while minimizing the potential harms that arise from opening a black box in the brain.
Due to a significant family health risk, Farahany pre-recorded her lecture and will participate in a live Q-and-A from her home. The program will be broadcast live in the Amp as well as the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. The program will be moderated on the Amphitheater stage by Chautauqua President Michael E. Hill and Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education.
According to Farahany, there are two kinds of neurotechnology that are being marketed for consumer use.
The first is electroencephalography (EEG) technology, which reads the electrical activity in a person’s brain as they have a thought, do a calculation or experience an emotion.
When you have a thought, your brain has hundreds of thousands neurons that fire, Farahany said. Each of those neurons gives off a small electrical discharge that forms distinctive patterns depending on what kind of thought a person has. Then artificial intelligence software reads the pattern and can tell what the thought was based on the pattern. This could be used to detect when a driver is tired, for example.
The second kind of neurotechnology is electromyography (EMG) technology. Instead of focusing on the electrical impulses in a person’s brain, EMG focuses on the neurons that control the muscles in a person’s body, called motor neurons. According to Farahany, these kinds of electrical patterns could be decoded through something a person was wearing on their wrist.
Farahany uses typing as an example of EMG technology. If a person wanted to type a word, a wristlet could decode the electrical impulses to determine what word they were going to type.
According to Farahany, big companies from Facebook to Apple are making big bets and investments in these kinds of technologies. There are even companies, like Neuralink, that are dedicated to developing EEG and EMG technology.
“All of that, from my perspective, adds up to a likely future where neurotechnology will become the new platform that we use to interact with other technology in the world,” Farahany said. “Instead of using a mouse or keyboard, you will use a neurotechnology device to type or to communicate with your friends. You might just think about turning on the lights in your house, rather than getting up and walking over there to turn them on.”
She calls all these technologies “exciting and promising,” but they also introduce new risks. The device could pick up on not only what a person intended to type, but a broader set of emotions and thoughts than they intended to communicate. The question that leads to is who has the right to that kind of data and how do lawmakers ensure people are able to enjoy the benefits of the technology while protecting people’s thoughts?
Even though this kind of neurotechnology sounds like it has been plucked from a science fiction novel, it is already being used commercially. According to Farahany, this technology is being used by employers and large corporations, as well as in educational settings, though it is not yet in widespread use. The data is already being collected and commodified.
“If we want to have at least a right to mental privacy, if we want to have a final fortress in our brain, we need to do something about this now,” Farahany said.
Despite her fears over user privacy, Farahany thinks that there are huge upsides to developing and using neurotechnology. With neurotechnology, someone with epilepsy would be able to detect a seizure an hour before it happened. People who are diabetic would be able to track insulin levels through the brain in less invasive and more accurate ways that the current needle method. It could improve the quality of life and adaptive skills of people with autism spectrum disorder.
“Being able to decode the human brain is critical to being able to address mental disease, to being able to improve our output and improve our mental health,” Farahany said. “Unless we can really decode and understand what’s happening in the brain, there’s no hope of being able to address some of the greatest ills that face humanity.”