Have you ever thought it would be so much easier to turn the TV on without lifting a finger or even uttering a few words? In times when the remote is buried deep in the couch, brain-computer interfaces (BCI) will come in handy.

This technology will allow people to control machines using their thoughts. However, it is still in beginning experimental stages – granted, for more serious matters than watching your favorite Monday night show.

According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), scientists are exploring implementing BCI for people with paralysis to regain control of their limbs or enabling servicemembers to operate a drone hands-free on the battlefield.

But how does it work? According to the report, new BCI users often undergo an iterative training process. The user learns to produce signals the BCI will recognize, which are then translated to operate a computerized device using machine learning.

The technology can connect to the brain in two ways: through implanted or wearable devices.

Implanted BCIs are surgically attached directly to brain tissue. They measure signals directly from the brain, reducing interference from other tissue. Wearable BCIs require a cap containing conductors that measure brain activity detectable on the scalp. They use electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain’s electrical activity.

Because implanted BCIs come with more risk, it is suggested they are used for more severe cases like neuro disorders or physical disabilities. For example, researchers are developing BCIs that allow people with paralysis to spell words on a computer screen or regain control of their limbs. They are also developing BCI-controlled robotic limbs that can provide users with a sense of touch.

Wearable BCIs would be more appropriate for purposes like augmented and virtual reality, gaming, or controlling an industrial robot. To enhance mobility, researchers are developing BCIs that use portable methods to acquire data – for example, wireless EEG. These methods allow users to operate a smartphone or other device while moving freely.

The possibilities for the technology are vast, but so are the ramifications.

The GAO report expressed concerns with the legal and security implications of BCI. Cyberattacks are a concern because hackers could use malware to intercept brain signal data stored on a smartphone. Societal and ethical challenges – like cost or inaccurate translation of speech – have also presented themselves.

The government watchdog posed four questions policymakers should consider:

  • As BCIs develop toward commercial and patient use, will they be accessible to all, and who will bear the cost?;
  • How should BCIs that augment human capabilities be regulated, if at all?;
  • What ethical issues might BCIs raise, and what applications might constitute unethical or controversial use of BCIs?; and
  • What steps might help to mitigate potential security and privacy risks associated with the acquisition of brain signal data?
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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.