Colloquium: Brain to Computer Communication

Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs) enable one to control peripheral ICT and robotic devices by processing brain activity on line. The potential usefulness of BCI-enabled brain-to-computer communication, initially demonstrated in rehabilitation medicine, is now being explored in a variety of application domains – including education, training, intensive workflow situations, security, and entertainment. The activities of the Dutch consortium BrainGain, which includes the University of Twente, provide a significant illustration of the wide spectrum of current research efforts into BCI technologies and systems.

This talk examines ethical issues distinctively arising in connection with BCI technologies and systems. These ethical issues span autonomy protection and promotion, moral responsibility and liability, in addition to privacy, distributive justice, personality change and personal identity persistence. Special attention will be paid to more urgent ethical themes, as these emerge from a triage taking into account technological imminence, societal pervasiveness, and ethical novelty.

By focussing on imminent BCI technological developments, one can ground ethical reflection into an epistemological appraisal of realistic models of BCI systems and their interaction with human neural processing. In particular, it will be argued that autonomy and responsibility issues are shaped by distinctive mutual adaptation and shared control problems arising in the BCI interaction environment. Novel personhood issues will be identified and analyzed too. These notably include (a) the “sub-personal” use of human mental processing in human-machine cooperative problem solving which is made possible by the BCI tapping of neural signatures of subliminal perceptual classifications, and (b) the pro-active protection of personal identity which is afforded – in the light of so-called motor theories of thinking – by BCI rehabilitation therapies for severely paralyzed patients.