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Brain to Computer Communication: Ethical Perspectives on Interaction Models

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Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs) enable one to control peripheral ICT and robotic devices by processing brain activity on-line. The potential usefulness of BCI systems, initially demonstrated in rehabilitation medicine, is now being explored in education, entertainment, intensive workflow monitoring, security, and training. Ethical issues arising in connection with these investigations are triaged taking into account technological imminence and pervasiveness of BCI technologies. By focussing on imminent technological developments, ethical reflection is informatively grounded into realistic protocols of brain-to-computer communication. In particular, it is argued that human-machine adaptation and shared control distinctively shape autonomy and responsibility issues in current BCI interaction environments. Novel personhood issues are identified and analyzed too. These notably concern (i) the “sub-personal” use of human beings in BCI-enabled cooperative problem solving, and (ii) the pro-active protection of personal identity which BCI rehabilitation therapies may afford, in the light of so-called motor theories of thinking, for the benefit of patients affected by severe motor disabilities.

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  1. General motives for avoiding purely speculative approaches in technoethics, that is, ethical reflection on technological scenarios that are beyond the reach of technological foresight, are discussed in [32] as far as neuroethics is concerned, and in [33] as far as nanoethics is concerned.

  2. Imminence is regarded as a chief dimension for neuro-ethical triage in [32].

  3. Accordingly, the broad philosophical context of transhumanism - in the framework of which issues of cyborg identity, rights, and responsibilities are often examined [34] - is hardly relevant here.

  4. The distinction between personal and sub-personal levels of explanation in psychology was introduced in [25]. “It is only on the personal level that explanations proceed in terms of the needs, desires, intentions and beliefs of an actor in the environment.”[25], p.164. In connection with the explanation of pain states, Dennett remarks: “Since the introduction of unanalysable mental qualities leads to a premature end to explanation, we may decide that such introduction is wrong, and look for alternative modes of explanation. If we do this we must abandon the explanatory level of people and their sensations and activities and turn to the sub-personal level of brains and events in the nervous system.” [25], p. 93, emphasis mine. For a more recent analysis of this distinction, see [26].

  5. Chiefly based on invasive transduction technologies are so-called input BCIs, which fall outside the scope of this paper. Input BCIs establish computer-to-brain communication by collecting, processing, and transmitting to the brain signals that are produced by a source external to the human body.

  6. See [5], for a more detailed description of these functional components.

  7. For a more general discussion of this epistemic issue in connection with the justification of inductive inference, see [35], and in connection with ethical issues concerning learning robots, see [36].

  8. The possibility of deploying on-line learning methods to deal with BCI learning problems is analyzed in [15].

  9. For an introduction to individualistic and relational conceptions of autonomy, see [37]. The promotion of autonomy of locked-in patients afforded by BCI systems is appropriately emphasized in [11], pp. 127-129. On more general grounds, however, one should carefully note, as Hansson does, that “subordination to technology will probably become an increasingly serious problem as enabling technology is developed that exhibits more and more intelligent behavior” [38, 264].

  10. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, art. 26, states: “The Union recognizes and respects the right of persons with disabilities to benefit from measures designed to ensure their independence, social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the community”.

  11. It is not clear, however, that the more appropriate liability ascription policies for brain-actuated robots in the near future will be those based on economically oriented criteria, in view of the free exchange of technological resources which has become standard practice within the BCI research community: “The non-invasive BCI community overcame commercial temptations with the BCI 2000 website allowing laboratories worldwide access to the necessary hard- and software.” [12, p. 482].

  12. This issue is examined in the light of the distinction between negative and positive rights in [11]. Moreover, Fenton and Alpert discuss possible enhancement effects in LIS subjects deriving from the use of BCI systems in the light of extended mind theories in the philosophy of mind, according to which BCI-controlled peripheral devices may enable one to augment neural structures for cognitive processing [11, p. 127].

  13. (site visited on February 12, 2009).

  14. The authors of this study go as far as claiming that “...the presence of reproducible and task-dependent responses to command without the need for any practice or training suggests a method by which some non-communicative patients, including those diagnosed as vegetative,... may be able to use their residual cognitive capabilities to communicate their thoughts to those around them by modulating their own neural activity.” [29] p. 1402.

  15. See, for discussion, [39] pp. 249-271 and, more specifically in connection with BCI systems, [40].

  16. Rather than as a paralyzing maxim which uniformly blocks the use of technologies if one cannot exclude undesirable consequences with absolute scientific certainty. This construal of the precautionary principle is arguably incoherent, insofar as it is oblivious to the fact that scientific theories and models are inherently fallible.

  17. Early ethical reflection on affective computing are found in [41].

  18. This scenario reminds one of the psychoanalytic variation of the know thyself maxim that Freud set out as a main goal for psychoanalytic interactions, that is, “…to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the superego, to widen its field of perception and enlarge its organization, so that it can appropriate fresh portions of the id. Where id was, there ego shall be. It is a work of culture - not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee .” [42 p. 80 of the English translation].


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I wish to thank an anonymous reviewer, Giuseppe Trautteur, Federica Lucivero, and Giovanni Boniolo for helpful and stimulating comments. I benefited from discussions on BCI systems and ethics with Febo Cincotti, Edoardo Datteri, José del R. Millán, Donatella Mattia, Stefano Rodotà, and Matteo Santoro.

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Correspondence to Guglielmo Tamburrini.

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Tamburrini, G. Brain to Computer Communication: Ethical Perspectives on Interaction Models. Neuroethics 2, 137–149 (2009).

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