Seattle Community Conversation Series




Brain-computer interfaces: ethical opportunities and challenges

Facilitated by eran klein, oregon health &sciences; portland va medical center; csne

Dr. Eran Klein treated us to a brief overview of current neural technologies and then we discussed the challenges and opportunities of such tech.  Klein condensed neural technology into three main areas based on the function it addresses: 1) motor function 2) sensory function and 3) communication functions. 

Participants discussed the incredible applications for this technology as well as very real concerns.  We encountered questions about privacy, access and psychiatry. 

Technology that connects the brain and devices is already alleviating suffering for folks with Parkinson’s Disease, using deep brain stimulation that controls tremors affecting motion and speaking. Folks who have difficulty speaking (as with Lou Gehrig’s, stroke, aphasia) know what they want to say and can select words on a computer to assist. Someday we may be able to “learn” overnight by connecting to a device that uploads content and skills to our brain, reminiscent of The Matrix.

With loads of personal data from ONE individual, how will that data be handled? Protected? Mined? Attendees were cynical that researchers can truly protect their data.  “We can’t even protect others’ social security numbers!”  Who will be able to access this data, and what does the data mean?

The technology will assist people with disabilities, but there are also commercial drivers such as the entertainment industry, which would like to gather data to inform their interests.
Participants expressed some concern that BCI could continue to widen the gap of the most wealthy and the poor.  This argument is often used in bioethics.  In reality, this technology will most likely be available to the wealthy initially, but would reduce in price and become more widely available, especially as health insurance recognizes and covers the tech.

Participants latched onto the way this kind of technology might be used, as in the above example of learning overnight.  Neural devices tie into ongoing bioethics discussions about using technology to heal or to enhance human capability.  For example, would it be right to use tech to restore hearing, speech, movement? Most agree, yes.  But what about using tech to learn 30 languages in a short period? Are these enhancement applications acceptable? Not everyone agreed.

I was most fascinated by the direction of our discussions under this theme.  Dr. Klein indicated that some people are so impacted by their devices that their family members no longer recognize them.  People can experience a loss of control of their feelings and experience personality and identity changes. 
While these impacts are profound, our participants were interested in how neural devices might impact the meaning of self.  Would so much brain data on one person reveal intimate knowledge of the mind and soul?  I reminded folks that bioethics discussions considered this question of codifying personality during the birth of the Human Genome Project 25 years ago!  So far we have not deconstructed human personality into the responsible genes, nor have we codified the self/soul through brain data.  … far.


When: January 23, 2018 5:45PM-7:30PM
Where: 333 Westlake Ave N at Capital One Cafe
Parking: 321 Terry Ave N $2.44 after 5pm
Cost: Free tonight!!
Contact: Jen Wroblewski,

Suggested readings and resources

Ethical Issues with Brain-computer interfaces


Reflections on Previous Topics

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