BCIs, which allow a person to control a device via a connection between their brain and a computer, are seen as a gamechanger for people with certain disabilities.
“No one can see inside your brain,” Oxley says. “It’s only our mouths and bodies moving that tells people what’s inside our brain … For people who can’t do that, it’s a horrific situation. What we’re doing is trying to help them get what’s inside their skull out. We are totally focused on solving medical problems.”
BCIs are one of a range of developing technologies centred on the brain. Brain stimulation is another, which delivers targeted electrical pulses to the brain and is used to treat cognitive disorders. Others, like imaging techniques fMRI and EEG, can monitor the brain in real time.
“The potential of neuroscience to improve our lives is almost unlimited,” says David Grant, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne. “However, the level of intrusion that would be needed to realise those benefits … is profound”.
Grant’s concerns about neurotech are not with the work of companies like Synchron. Regulated medical corrections for people with cognitive and sensory handicaps are uncontroversial, in his eyes.
But what, he asks, would happen if such capabilities move from medicine into an unregulated commercial world? It’s a dystopian scenario that Grant predicts would lead to “a progressive and relentless deterioration of our capacity to control our own brains”.
And while it’s a progression that remains hypothetical, it’s not unthinkable. In some countries, governments are already moving to protect humans from the possibility.
A new type of rights
In 2017 a young European bioethicist, Marcello Ienca, was anticipating these potential dangers. He proposed a new class of legal rights: neuro rights, the freedom to decide who is allowed to monitor, read or alter your brain.
Today Ienca is a Professor of Bioethics at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and advises the European Council, the UN, OECD, and governments on the impact technology could have on our sense of what it means to be human.
Before Ienca proposed the concept of neuro rights, he had already come to believe that the sanctity of our brains needed protection from advancing neurotechnology.
“So 2015, around that time the legal debate on neurotechnology was mostly focusing on criminal law,” Ienca says.
Much of the debate was theoretical, but BCIs were already being medically trialed. The questions Ienca were hearing six years ago were things like: “What happens when the device malfunctions? Who is responsible for that? Should it be legitimate to use neurotechnology as evidence in courts?”
Ienca, then in his 20s, believed more fundamental issues were at stake. Technology designed to decode and alter brain activity had the potential to affect what it meant to be “an individual person as opposed to a non-person”.
While humanity needs protection from the misuse of neurotech, Ienca says, neuro rights are “also about how to empower people and to let them flourish and promote their mental and cerebral wellbeing through the use of advanced neuroscience and neurotechnology”.
Neuro rights are a positive as well as protective force, Ienca says.
It’s a view Tom Oxley shares. He says stopping the development of BCIs would be an unfair infringement on the rights of the people his company is trying to assist.
“Is the ability to text message an expression of the right to communicate?” he asks. If the answer is yes, he posits, the right to use a BCI could be seen as a digital right.
Oxley agrees with Grant that the future privacy of our brains deserves the world’s full attention. He says neuro rights are “absolutely critical”.
“I recognise the brain is an intensely private place and we’re used to having our brain protected by our skull. That will no longer be the case with this technology.”
Grant believes neuro rights will not be enough to protect our privacy from the potential reach of neurotech outside medicine.
“Our current notion of privacy will be useless in the face of such deep intrusion,” he says.
Commercial products such as headsets that claim to improve concentration are already used in Chinese classrooms. Caps that track fatigue in lorry drivers have been used on mine sites in Australia. Devices like these generate data from users’ brain activity. Where and how that data is stored, says Grant, is hard to track and even harder to control.
Grant sees the amount of information that people already share, including neuro data, as an insurmountable challenge for neuro rights.
“To think we can deal with this on the basis of passing legislation is naive.”
Grant’s solutions to the intrusive potential of neurotech, he admits, are radical. He envisages the development of “personal algorithms” that operate as highly specialised firewalls between a person and the digital world. These codes could engage with the digital world on a person’s behalf, protecting their brain against intrusion or alteration.
The consequences of sharing neuro data preoccupies many ethicists.
“It’s not like you end up with these ridiculous dystopias where people control your brain and make you do things. But there are boring dystopias … you look at the companies that are interested in [personal data] and it’s Facebook and Google, primarily. They’re trying to make a model of what a person is so that that can be exploited.”
Moves to regulate
Chile is not taking any chances on the potential risks of neurotechnology.
In a world first, in September 2021, Chilean law makersapproved a constitutional amendment to enshrine mental integrity as a right of all citizens. Bills to regulate neurotechnology, digital platforms and the use of AI are also being worked on in Chile’s senate. Neuro rights principles of the right to cognitive liberty, mental privacy, mental integrity, and psychological continuity will be considered.
Europe is also making moves towards neuro rights.
France approved a bioethics law this year that protects the right to mental integrity. Spain is working on a digital rights bill with a section on neuro rights, and the Italian Data Protection Authority is considering whether mental privacy falls under the country’s privacy rights.
Australian neuroscientist and ethicist Assoc Prof Adrian Carter, of Monash University, Melbourne, is described by peers as having a “good BS detector” for the real and imagined threats posed by neurotech. As a self-described ‘speculative ethicist’, he looks at the potential consequences of technological progress.
Hype that over-sells neuro treatments can affect their effectiveness if patients’ expectations are raised too high, he explains. Hype can also cause unwarranted panic.
“A lot of the stuff that is being discussed is a long way away, if at all”, says Carter.
“Mind-reading? That won’t happen. At least not in the way many imagine. The brain is just too complex. Take brain computer interfaces; yes, people can control a device using their thoughts, but they do a lot of training for the technology to recognise specific patterns of brain activity before it works. They don’t just think, ‘open the door’, and it happens.”
Carter points out that some of the threats ascribed to future neurotechnology are already present in the way data is used by tech companies every day.
AI and algorithms that read eye movement and detect changes in skin colour and temperature arereading the results of brain activity in controlled studies for advertising. This data has been used by commercial interests for years to analyse, predict and nudge behaviour.
“Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon have made billions out of [personal data]”, Carter points out.
Dystopias that emerge from the data collected without consent aren’t always as boring as Facebook ads.
Oxford’s Stephen Rainey points to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where data from 87 million Facebook users was collected without consent. The company built psychological voter profiles based on people’s likes, to inform the political campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
“It’s this line where it becomes a commercial interest and people want to do something else with the data, that’s where all the risk comes in”, Rainey says.
“It’s bringing that whole data economy that we’re already suffering from right into the neuro space, and there’s potential for misuse. I mean, it would be naive to think authoritarian governments would not be interested.”
Tom Oxley says he is “not naive” about the potential for bad actors to misuse the research he and others are doing in BCI.
He points out Synchron’s initial funding came from the US military, which was looking to develop robotic arms and legs for injured soldiers, operated through chips implanted in their brains.
While there’s no suggestion the US plans to weaponise the technology, Oxley says it’s impossible to ignore the military backdrop. “If BCI does end up being weaponised, you have a direct brain link to a weapon,” Oxley says.
This potential appears to have dawned on the US government. Its Bureau of Industry and Security released a memo last month on the prospect of limiting exports of BCI technology from the US. Acknowledging its medical and entertainment uses, the bureau was concerned it may be used by militaries to “improve the capabilities of human soldiers and in unmanned military operations”.
‘It can be life changing’
Concerns about the misuse of neurotech by rogue actors do not detract from what it is already achieving in the medical sphere.
At the Epworth centre for innovation in mental health at Monash University, deputy director Prof Kate Hoy is overseeing trials of neuro treatments for brain disorders including treatment-resistant depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.
One of TMS’s appeals is its non-invasiveness. People can be treated in their lunch hour and go back to work, Hoy says.
“Basically we put a figure of eight coil, something you can hold in your hand, over the area of the brain we want to stimulate and then we send pulses into the brain, which induces electrical current and causes neurons to fire,” she says.
“So when we move [the pulse] to the areas of the brain that we know are involved in things like depression, what we’re aiming to do is essentially improve the function in that area of the brain.”
TMS is also free of side effects like memory loss and fatigue, common to some brain stimulation methods. Hoy says there is evidence that some patients’ cognition improves after TMS.
When Zia Liddell, 26, began TMS treatment at the Epworth centre about five years ago, she had low expectations. Liddell has trauma-induced schizophrenia and has experienced hallucinations since she was 14.
“I’ve come a long way in my journey from living in psych wards to going on all sorts of antipsychotics, to going down this path of neurodiverse technology.”
Liddell wasn’t overly invested in TMS, she says, “until it worked”.
She describes TMS as, “a very, very gentle flick on the back of your head, repetitively and slowly.”
Liddell goes into hospital for treatment, normally for two weeks, twice a year. There she’ll have two 20-minute sessions of TMS a day, lying in a chair watching TV or listening to music.
She can remember clearly the moment she realised it was working. “I woke up and the world was silent. I sprinted outside in my pyjamas, into the courtyard and rang my mum. And all I could say through tears was, ‘I can hear the birds Mum.’”
It is a quietening of the mind that Liddell says takes effect about the three- to five-day mark of a two-week treatment.
“I will wake up one morning and the world will be quiet … I’m not distracted, I can focus. TMS didn’t just save my life, it gave me the chance of a livelihood. The future of TMS is the future of me.”
But despite how it has changed her life for the better, she is not naive about the dangers of setting neurotech loose in the world.
“I think there’s an important discussion to be had on where the line of consent should be drawn,” she says.
“You are altering someone’s brain chemistry, that can be and will be life changing. You are playing with the fabric of who you are as a person.”
Several Amazon services – including its website, Prime Video and applications that use Amazon Web Services (AWS) – went down for thousands of users on Tuesday.
Amazon said the outage was probably due to problems related to application programming interface (API), which is a set of protocols for building and integrating application software, Reuters reported.
“We are experiencing API and console issues in the US-East-1 Region,” Amazon said in a report on its service health dashboard, adding that it had identified the cause. By late late afternoon the outage appeared to be partially resolved, with the company saying that it was “working towards full recovery”.
“With the network device issues resolved, we are now working towards recovery of any impaired services,” the company said on the dashboard.
Downdetector showed more than 24,000 incidents of people reporting problems with Amazon. It tracks outages by collating status reports from a number of sources, including user-submitted errors on its platform.
The outage was also affecting delivery operations. Amazon’s warehouse operation use AWS and experienced disruptions, spokesperson Richard Rocha told the Washington Post. A Washington state Amazon driver said his facility had been “at a standstill” since Tuesday morning, CNBC reported.
Other services, including Amazon’s Ring security cameras, mobile banking app Chime and robot vacuum cleaner maker iRobot were also facing difficulties, according to their social media pages.
Ring said it was aware of the issue and working to resolve it. “A major Amazon Web Services (AWS) outage is currently impacting our iRobot Home App,” iRobot said on its website.
Other websites and apps affected include the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), language learning provider Duolingo and dating site Tinder, according to Downdetector.
The outage also affected presale tickets for Adele’s upcoming performances in Las Vegas. “Due to an Amazon Web Services (AWS) outage impacting companies globally, all Adele Verified Fan Presales scheduled for today have been moved to tomorrow to ensure a better experience,” Ticketmaster said on Twitter.
In June, websites including the Guardian, Reddit, Amazon, CNN, PayPal, Spotify, Al Jazeera Media Network and the New York Times were hit by a widespread hour-long outage linked to US-based content delivery network provider Fastly Inc, a smaller rival of AWS.
In July, Amazon experienced a disruption in its online stores service, which lasted for nearly two hours and affected more than 38,000 users.
Users have experienced 27 outages over the past 12 months on Amazon, according to the web tool reviewing website ToolTester.
South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT has offered Big Tech some advice on how to make their services suitably resilient, and added an obligation to notify users – in Korean – when they fail.
The guidelines apply to Google, Meta (parent company of Facebook), Netflix, Naver, Kakao and Wavve. All have been told to improve their response to faults by beefing up preemptive error detection and verification systems, and create back up storage systems that enable quick content recovery.
The guidelines offer methods Big Tech can use to measure user loads, then plan accordingly to ensure their services remain available. Uptime requirements are not spelled out.
Big techs is already rather good at resilience. Google literally wrote the book on site reliability engineering.
The guidelines refer to legislation colloquially known as the “Netflix law” which requires major service outages be reported to the Ministry.
That law builds on another enacted in 2020 that made online content service providers responsible for the quality of their streaming services. It was put in place after a number of outages, including one where notifications of the problem were made on the offending company’s social media site – but only in English.
The new regulations follow South Korean telcos’ recent attempts to have platforms that guzzle their bandwidth pay for the privilege. Mobile carrier SK Broadband took legal action in October of this year, demanding Netflix pitch in some cash for the amount of bandwidth that streaming shows – such as Squid Game – consume.
In response, Netflix pointed at its own free content delivery network, Open Connect, which helps carriers to reduce traffic. Netflix then accused SK Broadband of trying to double up on profits by collecting fees from consumers and content providers at the same time.
For the record, Naver and Kakao pay carriers, while Apple TV+ and Disney+ have at the very least given lip service to the idea.
Korea isn’t the only place where telcos have noticed Big Tech taking up more than its fair share of bandwidth. The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) published a letter from ten telco CEOs asking that larger platforms “contribute fairly to network costs”. ®
As part of the acquisition, Quill will be shutting down at the end of the week as its team joins the social media company.
Twitter has acquired the messaging platform Quill, seen as a potential competitor to Slack, in order to improve its messaging tools and services.
Quill announced that it will be shutting down at the end of the week as its team joins the social media company to continue its original goal “to make online communication more thoughtful, and more effective, for everyone”.
The purchase of Quill could be linked to Twitter’s new strategy to reduce its reliance on ad revenue and attract paying subscribers.
Twitter’s general manager for core tech, Nick Caldwell, described Quill as a “fresher, more deliberate way to communicate. We’re bringing their experience and creativity to Twitter as we work to make messaging tools like DMs a more useful and expressive way people can have conversations on the service”.
Users of Quill have until 11 December to export their team message history before the servers are fully shut down at 1pm PST (9pm Irish time). The announcement has instructions for users who wish to import their chat history into Slack and states that all active teams will be issued full refunds.
The team thanked its users and said: “We can’t wait to show you what we’ll be working on next.”
Quill was launched in February with the goal to remove the overwhelming aspects of other messaging services and give users a more deliberate and focused form of online chat.
In an online post, Quill creator Ludwig Pettersson said: “We started Quill to increase the quality of human communication. Excited to keep doing just that, at Twitter.”
The company became a potential competitor for Slack, which was bought by Salesforce at the end of 2020 for $27.7bn. The goal of that acquisition was to combine Salesforce’s CRM platform with Slack’s communications tools to create a unified service tailored to digital-led teams around the world.