Neurotechnology is a field that tech companies are getting into. Should We Be Afraid?

Neurotechnology is a field that tech companies are getting into. Should We Be Afraid?

In the picture for this article, a man is wearing goggles for virtual reality. The article makes it clear that the data comes from neuronal activity, such as when neuromotor signals are used. These signals are probably picked up by skin monitors (I think of a less intrusive version of the stickies and leads used for EKGs). Science fiction has been predicting these changes for a long time. For example, Neuromancer and many other stories have brain implants and other ways to improve human abilities as a major plot point.

People are worried that even more of their personal information will be taken and sold, and that they will lose their privacy. Paranoid Luddites like me can’t figure out why so many people treat this kind of thing like it’s nothing.

Back to the eye protection. Since one use case is better VR, I wonder if people who don’t have binocular vision (and therefore can’t use VR and wouldn’t be included in datasets with VR-like applications) will be left out of some of these “advances,” at least for a while.

Written by Michael Nolan, who writes about science and technology. In his writing, he talks about neurotechnology, data privacy, and new research in neuroscience. First appeared at Undark.

In the last few decades, neuroscience research has led to a wide range of tools that can measure how the brain works. Researchers have used techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging, implanted electrode systems, and electroencephalograms, or EEGs, to learn more about how our brains respond to and control how our bodies interact with the outside world.

Now, some of these technologies, like EEG, have moved out of the lab and onto the market for consumers. The first consumer-facing neurotechnology devices were fairly simple systems that measured electrical signals carried across the skull and scalp. They were mostly sold to “biohackers” who wanted to improve themselves through technology as focus trainers or meditation aids. But tech industry giants have recently started to pay attention, and they are looking for creative new ways to use the electrical conversations going on inside our brains.

Meta, which was still called Facebook at the time, paid nearly $1 billion to buy CTRL-Labs in 2019. CTRL-Labs was a startup whose most popular product was a wristband that reads neuromotor signals and lets the wearer control a computer system with a variety of arm, hand, and finger movements. Snap, the company that runs Snapchat, bought NextMind for an undisclosed amount last year. NextMind’s headset uses EEG technology to let users “push a virtual button just by focusing on it.” Even Valve, which makes video games and runs the huge Steam video game store, has teamed up with OpenBCI, a company that makes brain-computer interfaces, with the goal of putting them in virtual reality headsets.

The idea behind these systems is to give users a new way to control computers that might be easier for more people to use than standard interfaces like mice, handheld controllers, and touchscreens. Tech giants will be interested in the huge amounts of real-time data that these devices collect about how a person’s neurons are firing. This latest change in neurotechnology could be a big win for companies like Meta and Snap, whose business models are based on data-driven advertising. For the average consumer, though, it could mean a new kind of privacy threat that regulators don’t seem to be ready to handle.

Companies like Meta and Snap make a lot of money by keeping track of what people do on the web, using that information to find very specific target demographics for advertising clients, and selling access to user information to other businesses and researchers. One of the main ideas behind this model is that if developers know enough about a person and their habits, they can figure out with great accuracy how that person will react to certain ads. To do this, companies might use feedback surveys to try to figure out if an ad worked or not, or they might track how people interact with ads online by looking at things like clickthrough rates or the amount of time a person spends with their mouse pointer over an image or video.

Tracking a person’s brain activity in real time, on the other hand, could give a more accurate, specific, and personalized picture of how well an ad works. Researchers have shown in the lab that certain EEG signals can be used to tell when a person has been exposed to a strong sensory stimulus or when they suddenly start paying attention to something new. These signals, which are called “event-related potentials,” can then be used to find out how interested users are and how well ads work. It could mean a faster and more accurate way for sites like Snapchat and Meta to find out how well their ads are doing.

Neuromarketing is the practice of measuring brain activity to learn about how people act. It has been around since the early 1990s. So far, neuromarketing techniques have only been used in controlled research settings. It’s not clear how well, if at all, they will work in the real world. Still, recent moves by social media platforms that make money from ads to develop brain-computer interface technology suggest that neuromarketing may be on the verge of becoming a mainstream marketing method. Companies like Meta and Snap are already putting billions of dollars into virtual and augmented reality, so it’s not hard to imagine them adding EEG signal collection to the user data they already get from head-mounted VR and AR devices. In fact, OpenBCI, which is working with Valve, has already put EEG into its Galea VR headset.

Social media companies have been putting together user data to make targeted ads for a long time, but adding neurological data to this is uncharted territory that comes with a lot of risks.

One thing is that it’s not clear what neuromarketing would mean for the user experience. Neuromarketing metrics are made by measuring the basic electrochemical reactions in a person’s brain. They are more like a knee-jerk reflex test for the brain than a real way to tell if someone is interested in a product. Using neuromarketing metrics to optimize advertising content could lead developers to bombard users with the most eye-catching stimuli possible, making EEG-integrated VR use a bombardment of weapons-grade irritation.

Large-scale neuromarketing could also hurt data privacy in ways that nobody expected. If platform companies like Meta and Snap were to connect even rough measurements of a person’s brain activity to the huge amounts of data they already collect, like where users are, what they buy, and what they do online, they could get a much more complete picture of their users than the average person might be comfortable giving them. Even though EEG and other neurotechnologies can’t read minds, they can record sensory responses that the user has little or no control over. This could, in theory, show that the user was paying attention to things in the environment that they didn’t want to.

When algorithms link increased neural responses to a world of distractions, random interactions may be marked as important or meaningful by mistake.

Laws and rules about the privacy of neural data, on the other hand, are not just behind the times; they are almost nonexistent. People have some control and protection over their digital footprints thanks to laws like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. At least two states in the U.S. have also passed biometric privacy laws that keep people from being measured in public places without their knowledge. But some experts have said that neural data privacy is different and needs a different way of regulating it. So far, technology companies that want to use neuromarketing and other ways to make money off of neural data have mostly been left to police themselves.

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