Responsible Brainwave Technologies workshop notes


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Last week, we joined the inaugural workshop for the Center for Responsible Brainwave Technologies.

CEREB Symposium May 2015 copy2

Top row: John Chuang (U.C. Berkeley I-School), Brian Behlendorf (EFF), Stephen Frey (Cognitive Technology), Joel Murphy (OpenBCI), Conor Russomanno (OpenBCI), Dirk Rodenburg (CeReB), Yannick Roy (Neurogadget), Johnny Liu (Neurosky). Bottom row: Gary Wolf (Quantified Self), Ramses Alcaide (U. Michigan), Serena Purdy (CeReB), Ariel Garten (Interaxon), Ari Gross (CeReB), Francis X. Shen (U. Minnesota Shen Neurolaw Lab)

We did a “deep dive” into several of the ethical issues in the near-term development of brainwave technologies.

Right now, here are some of the most salient issues with consumer-grade brainwave technology:

Lack of consumer awareness

  • People overestimate the capability of the technology (“can this read my mind?”)
  • People underestimate the capability of the technology, and release their personal brainwave data without understanding how it could be used

Consent to collect brainwave data

  • Monitoring the cognitive and emotional states of employees in transportation, construction, office work, etc. without consent.
  • Monitoring the cognitive and emotional states of people with physical or mental disabilities

Unintended uses of public brainwave data

As described in CeReB’s 2014 white paper:

The situation is analogous to that of DNA data. Information – such as the presence or absence of a predisposition to a particular illness – that is currently captured in DNA data may not as yet be identified or exploited. It is entirely conceivable that the data now available will eventually provide a rich source of information about a broad range of genetically endowed potentialities and predispositions. Knowledge of some of these by third parties might be benign, while knowledge of others may provide third parties with the power to do harm though discrimination and/or unsolicited intervention. The same may well be true of brainwave data.
We believe that the data generated, stored, and used by brainwave technology must be handled in a manner that reflects its current and potential sensitivity, both as a personal “signature” and as a conveyor of information about an individual’s capacity or level of functioning.
CEREB white paper 2014 summary

Summary table from CeReB’s initial white paper (2014).

Considerations for technology developers

A notable amount of the current problems in the graph are (at least partially) countered by:

  • users understanding what the data is
  • users maintaining control over how their data is used

It’s quite nice when we can address problems from the technology side, rather than going through public policy. The Data Locker Project, MIT’s OpenPDS, and Samsung’s SAMI are some nice projects that are working to give users more control over how their data is used, which could be generally applied to biodata. Figshare is designed specifically for sharing data with researchers.

What’s next

As brainwave technology becomes more advanced, CeReB will examine the resulting social and ethical issues, and provide resources for those working at a technological or policy level.

If you are interested in participating in future publications with CeReB, contact Dirk Rodenburg.

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