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Brain-computer Connection Unlocks Possibilities, Both Good and Bad

Film Explores Bright, Dark Side of Brain-computer Interface
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Imagine the possibilities that could be unlocked by hooking up your brain to a computer.

Science fiction has explored this idea in many films, including the upcoming movie MindGamers, in which students create a wireless neural network that can link people's minds through a quantum computer. It allows people to transfer motor skills from one brain to another, but also opens the door for mass mind control.

In the real world, research toward a brain-computer interface is under way, and one of the possible applications can help change lives.

"The most fundamental good is restoration of function for people who have limited capabilities," explained computational neuroscientist Tim Mullen. "Let's say a paraplegic can't move, allowing them to walk again."

Mullen said his company, Qusp Neurotechnologies, is working on a platform to digitally link a person to the cloud and, from there, to any internet-connected device, such as a multiplayer brain-controlled game.

Mullen said a type of mediated telepathy, or brain-to-brain communication, may also be in the future.

"Currently we can do this in rats. ... First experiments in humans have been demonstrated, in a very limited way, and … in the coming decades we will actually be able to have brain-to-brain communication between humans," Mullen said.

Joanne Reay, writer and producer of MindGamers, sees connecting minds to the cloud as a good thing.

"The need of the ego to put oneself first is redundant in our society," she said. "And that would be a benefit if that could just fall away like a monkey tail."

But with the good comes the potential for bad, some say.

"This rosy picture, yes we can get there, but in doing so, we will enable this whole other dark side, and we need to plan for it and we need to have some mitigating strategies for it," said Todd Richmond, at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies.

Science ethics

Richmond, director of the institute's Advanced Prototype Development, works with emerging disruptive technologies and warns that internet hacking and other criminal behaviors will be magnified as scientists pursue certain types of innovation.

"We have anonymity. We have online stalking. We have harassment. We have the capabilities of some kid in a country 5,000 miles [8,000 kilometers] away having a very real impact on society, hacking power grids, hacking monetary systems," Richmond said. "Part of the challenge is a lot of the innovation right now is driven by the commercial sector, and in that case their focus is on profitability and getting a product out there and getting the new capability, a new shiny object that they want to excite the consumer to buy. For them, moral and ethical repercussions are not necessarily part of their development timeline."

Mullen agreed, pointing out, "There is a very strong code of ethics that's inherent in our academic and scientific institutions to not do harm to people, to use our best judgement as we make discoveries. But that being said, science is a process of being on the edge. You don't know what the outcome is going to be of the technology you're building. You don't know how it will be used. The responsibility lies on society to use that technology for good."

Richmond added, "But technology has become so sophisticated and so complex that it's very difficult for members of society or policymakers to really understand what's going on inside the black box. So now, more than ever, it's really critical that the scientist and the technologist be part of that conversation about ethics and morals and where is this technology heading in society."

The experiment

Through the movie, filmmakers present one possible view of a world in which this technology exists.

"We aren't perfect and we will make mistakes and the people who are designing the tech have to have the right mindset or they can take this in a direction we don't want to go," said Andrew Goth, director of MindGamers.

Scientists will soon be able tell how audiences respond when 1,000 people watch the film on March 28, and participate in an experiment wearing cognition headbands. Cloud technology makes this mass mind-state experiment possible.

Mullen said that data gathered from the experiment will help scientists answer the questions of what makes people similar and different.

"We'll be looking at some interesting stuff, where we're looking at how the similarities in their brain activity map onto other aspects like their demographic groups or their socio-psychological traits," he said. "So if you're an extrovert, is your brain like another extrovert in some way? Do you tend to respond in the same way when you're watching a movie?"

But whether brain-computer interface technology will be a blessing or a curse to society is yet to be determined.