Wear this and upgrade your brain

Maria Isabel Garcia
I feel that we should first seriously think about the possible costs of another wave of technology, this time targeting the human brain itself

Imagine a classroom where the teacher could tell right away at any moment whether each student is paying attention to the subject the teacher is delivering. We all know that even if someone is looking at you, it does not necessarily mean she is focusing on what you are saying. For a couple of years now, companies have developed wearable devices that can read your brain waves and tell whether you are focused, relaxed, or alert. Examples of these devices include those that send data to a main computer making up for big data to analyze across individuals, brain interfaces for patients to help connect with the world such as those for translation into written or verbalized speech, therapy for trauma, or simulations for training workforce. In more recent years, companies have also released wearable devices that claim to improve memory and attention.

I was approached by one of these companies for a partnership but I declined because the science about this is not yet conclusive enough. More importantly, they want to deploy it mainly for children, and knowing that childhood is the time for much wiring that happens in the brain, I would rather refrain from now until the long-term effects are clear enough.

About 3 months ago, a study on the claims of 41 of these commercially available wearable brain devices found that less than a quarter were backed up by reviews of experts that are working on the same field. If you are going to employ a brain device on your skull that will send electrical or magnetic signals directly to your brain and will affect how your brain works, you would want to know what the very people who have done relevant studies on it have found and how they have consulted each other on their respective findings. That way, they can tell us not only if these devices are effective but most importantly, if they are safe. The study found that the vast majority of the devices only referred to the scientific principles underlying the effect of these brain devices. They do not back up the claims with studies of the effect of the products themselves. 

It is one thing to hail a scientific finding that magnetic impulses to your brain improve attention under controlled settings in a lab, but it is another thing to have a wearable device that you can use as many times under any condition. Early this year, bioethicists called for a regulatory oversight over these things as these are direct-to-consumer devices with no medical intermediaries. And these products are being pushed by accelerating demand, as markets predict that it will be a $3-billion industry by next year.  

I was at a conference two months ago with some neuroethicists from the Kavli Foundation. The foundation supports basic neuroscience research and the US Brain initiative, but they are also doing what I think is crucial important work on facilitating meetings among all the Brain Initiative projects around the world. They wanted to get a sense of how people who work on science engagement like me and my peers feel about these emergent brain interface technologies. Overwhelmingly, the ethical issues surrounding the use of these technologies rose to the surface for discussion among us.  

With the tsunami of smart devices, particularly of smartphones, that have reshaped our brains and therefore the way we live and interact with each other, I feel that we should first seriously think about the possible costs of another wave of technology, this time targeting the human brain itself. I could think of a few.  

For instance, for the wearable brain device I was offered to improve students’ memory and attention. Would we do away with constant learning and just pop the device before exams? What would be the long term-effect of not developing the habit of learning and perfecting the timing instead of the habit of putting on the device? In school bags, these could be a main content instead of headphones. Oh and you have to know that this device is not cheap. So if only those who have the money can afford them, what happens to the already compromised access of those who cannot afford a good education?

Business will say that eventually, like computers, prices will go down. Yeah, right, just look at the prices of smartphones now. There will always be classes and upgrades of these technologies that will further divide us according to not our capacity to learn but our capacity to pay to learn. I have always found it immoral and unreasonable that the accident of birth significantly dictates many things in one’s life. One of them is our access (or lack thereof) to resources, especially in political economies like ours. I do not think that should rule our capacity to learn. This scenario of wearable brain devices to augment performance in school just messes that up even further. The elite studentry will be the ones who can afford these devices. Then there will be a “black market” for these which will render these devices even more vulnerable to dangerous tweaking and rewiring.  

Over a decade ago, I interacted with a science exhibit in a science museum abroad by controlling it with my brain waves. Its physical pieces moved depending on whether I was relaxed or distracted. For a few years now, I have had a wearable device with bunny ears that rise or fall depending on whether I am relaxed or alert. It reads my brain waves and translates them to the mechanical movement of the bunny ears. It also enables me to control a particular scene on my computer screen using only my thoughts as command. These wearable brain devices have arrived on the planet of our minds. They are not fiction. Will we surrender to them like we did to smartphones and “like” buttons? – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.

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