Article

David Balaban
David Balaban 9 December 2019

The Neural Revolution Is Almost Here but Should We Be Scared?

Is our brain the last frontier of privacy? Read this article and find how marketers can get inside your head and extract information from there.

On September 23, 2019, it became known that Facebook bought the developer of neural interfaces CTRL-Labs. Google Glasses are compatible with the NeuroSky EEG biosensor through the open-source MindRDR application. On July 16, 2019, Elon Musk's startup introduced the revolutionary Neuralink brain-machine interface claiming to start the transhuman evolution.

All these pieces of news indicate the direction the industry is heading to. Internet companies that receive the main profit from showing targeted advertising try to take into account the interests of their users. To determine these interests, they massively collect data, tracking the user's actions on the Internet, building profiles and social graphs, monitoring messages, calls, physical movements, shopping carts, contact lists, etc. But it seems this is not enough for them.

So far, EEG scanners and implants have very limited functionality, but this technology is developing rapidly. Based on the results of a brain activity scan, it is already possible to recognize basic emotions, some unspoken words, and mental attempts to make physical movements. Scientists have found similarities in how different people’s brains process information. It is now possible to make assumptions about a person’s thoughts based on his brain’s neural activity.

Medical brain-computer interfaces should help people regain control of their limbs or control prostheses. Inexpensive headsets are positioned as relaxation tools or entertainment gadgets. However, companies have already begun experimenting with EEG to evaluate the performance of advertising campaigns.

Facebook and startups like Neuralink are developing a new generation of neurotechnology tools and making bold promises. For example, Facebook promises to let people type by simply imagining themselves talking, and Elon Musk anticipates the merger of the human brain with AI.

On September 10, 2019, the Royal Society of London published a 106-page report on the future and risks of neurotechnology. They predict that a “neural revolution" will happen in the coming decades.

Brain-computer devices generate a huge amount of neural data - potentially one of the most sensitive forms of personal information. And the main problem is how this brain data will be commercialized. Advertisers are already using some confidential information about people's search preferences, habits, and locations. Adding neural data to the mix will seriously increase the threat to privacy.

Getting data directly from the brain will be a real paradigm shift. If Facebook, for example, combines neural data with its extensive collection of personal data, then it can create much more accurate and comprehensive psychographic profiles.

Experts say that for now, there are almost no legal obstacles to prevent companies from trading neural profiles.

Neuromarketing

Neuromarketing is a new industry in marketing research that uses brain scans to know consumers better than they know themselves. Neuromarketers clearly promise to exploit neural profiles commercially.

By non-invasively recording the bioelectrical activity of the brain (electroencephalography), neuromarketers monitor the brain's response to viewing ads. In the future, they hope that this technology will also allow tracking brain activity while using applications, communicating on the Internet, watching movies and TV shows. This will help to maximize the effectiveness of advertising (and, perhaps, other methods of influencing the audience.)

It is already clear that such technologies will be used not only in the advertising industry. In one of his recent interviews, Edward Snowden explained that technology giants are tools in the hands of even more powerful players: “We see how authoritarianism is growing all over the world, and the reality is that all of them are parts of the same threat. These companies function as weapons in the hands of governments. It’s too easy to say that tech giants are a real threat; in reality, all of them are part of the same threat – the system.”

Snowden pointed out that it is better to use WhatsApp rather than simple unencrypted SMS, but it is still not a good idea to use WhatsApp if you are a prime minister and wish to communicate with your ministers. For now, you can encrypt and hide your communication if you use virtual private networks like the one described in this Mullvad review, but speaking about brain-computer interfaces it is impossible to encrypt neural signals inside your brain.

Ethics experts also fear that information from the brain may be potentially used for discrimination. For example, if there will be found patterns of brain activity similar to patterns observed in drug addicts or people suffering from depression or other diseases, perhaps, on the basis of such patterns, employers will refuse to hire people, insurance companies will increase the cost of insurance, and banks will offer loans on less favorable terms.

The future we are striving for is a world in which our neural data, which we do not even have access to, can be used against us. For now, our thoughts are the last frontier of the defence in the war for privacy. It is sad, but all previous battles have been unconditionally lost.

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