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Neurotech could connect our brains to computers. What could go wrong, right?

We are approaching the brave new world of neurotech.
Yuichiro Chino
Getty Images
We are approaching the brave new world of neurotech.

Connecting our brains to computers may sound like something from a science fiction movie, but it turns out the future is already here. One expert argues it's a slippery slope.

Who is she? Nita Farahany is professor of law and philosophy at Duke Law School. Her work focuses on futurism and legal ethics, and her latest book, The Battle For Your Brain, explores the growth of neurotech in our everyday lives.

  • Neurotechnology can provide insight into the function of the human brain. It's a growing field of research that could have all sorts of health applications, and goes beyond wearable devices like smart watches that monitor your heart rate of the amount of steps you take in a day.
  • Farahany describes it to NPR like this: "Imagine a near distant future in which it isn't just your heart rate, or your oxygen levels, or the steps that you're taking that you're tracking, but also your brain activity, where you're wearing wearable brain sensors that are integrated into your headphones, and your earbuds, and your watches, to track your brain activity in the same way that you track all of the rest of your activity. And that allows you to peer into your own brain health and wellness, and your attention and your focus, and even potentially your cognitive decline over time." 
  • Nita Farahany is a law and philosophy professor at Duke University.
    Merritt Chesson / Merritt Chesson
    Merritt Chesson
    Nita Farahany is a law and philosophy professor at Duke University.

    What's the big deal? You mean aside from the prospect of having your brain tracked? Farahany worries about potential privacy issues, and outlines various scenarios in which access to this information could be problematic, if the right protections aren't put in place.

  • Law enforcement could seek the data from neurotech companies in order to assist with criminal investigations, she says, citing Fitbit data being presented as evidence in court as a precedent.  
  • And she warns it could extend to the workplace, giving employers the opportunity to track productivity, or whether workers' minds are wandering while on the job.
  • Farahany argues that without the proper human rights protections in place, the unfettered growth of this tech could lead to a world that violates our right to "cognitive liberty." 

  • Want more insight on the tech world? Listen to the Consider This episode about how Silicon Valley Bank failed, and what comes next.

    What is she saying?

    Farahany on defining cognitive liberty:

    The simplest definition I can give is the right to self-determination over our brains and mental experiences. I describe it as a right from other people interfering with our brains ... It directs us as an international human right to update existing human rights — the right to privacy — which implicitly should include a right to mental privacy but explicitly does not. 

    On the existing practice of tracking employees with tech:

    When it comes to neurotechnology, there's already — in thousands of companies worldwide — at least basic brain monitoring that's happening for some employees. And that usually is tracking things like fatigue levels if you're a commercial driver. Or if you're a miner, having brain sensors that are embedded in hard hats or baseball caps that are picking up your fatigue levels.  ...  In which case it may not be that intrusive relative to the benefits to society and to the individual. 

    But the idea of tracking a person's brain to see whether or not they are focused, or if their mind is wandering — for an individual to use that tool, I don't think that is a bad thing. I use productivity focused tools. And neurotechnology is a tool given to individuals to enable them to figure out how and where they focus best. But when companies use it to see if their employees are paying attention, and which ones are paying the most attention, and which ones have periods of mind wandering, and then using that as part of productivity scoring, it undermines morale, it undercuts the dignity of work. 

    So, what now?

  • Like other new and rapidly developing areas of tech, Farahany warns that the pace of development may be far too fast to keep it reasonably in check. She believes it is only a matter of time before the technology is widely adopted.
  • "I don't think it's too late. I think that this last bastion of freedom, before brain wearables become really widespread, is a moment at which we could decide this is a category that is just different in kind. We're going to lay down a set of rights and interests for individuals that favor individuals and their right to cognitive liberty." 
  • Learn more:

  • Does the 'Bold Glamour' filter push unrealistic beauty standards? TikTokkers think so
  • Microsoft's new AI chatbot has been saying some 'crazy and unhinged things'
  • A new Ford patent imagines a future in which self-driving cars repossess themselves
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.
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