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'Battle for your brain': What the rise of brain-computer interface technology means for you

Aamir Ahmed Khan, PhD, Principal Electrical Engineer for Paradromics, works on the Transceiver which connects to the brain implants. The device is wirelessly powered and does not have a battery to charge. 
(Photo by Julia Robinson for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Aamir Ahmed Khan, PhD, Principal Electrical Engineer for Paradromics, works on the Transceiver which connects to the brain implants. The device is wirelessly powered and does not have a battery to charge. (Photo by Julia Robinson for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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This rebroadcast originally aired on March 17, 2023.

Computer brain interfaces used to be the stuff of science fiction.

Now, headphones and earbuds with sensors that can read your brain waves – and sell your data – are hitting the market.

“Nobody should walk into this blindly thinking that this is just another fun tool,” Nita Farahany says.

“This is the most sensitive organ we have. Opening that up to the rest of the world profoundly changes what it means to be human and how we relate to one another.”

But that brainwave information can also be used by corporations and governments.

“China has very clearly said that they believe that the sixth domain of warfare is the human brain,” Farahany adds.

“They are investing tremendous dollars into developing brain computer interface, but also figuring out ways to disable brains or to spy on brains.”

Today, On Point: Big business, big government and your brain.


Nita Farahany, professor of law and philosophy at Duke University. Her new book is titled The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology. (@NitaFarahany)

Margaret Kosal, teaches international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, currently on leave to the Savannah River National Laboratory. (@mekosal)

Also Featured

Tan Le, CEO of EMOTIV, which manufactures wearable neural sensing devices. (@TanTTLe)

Transcript: The earbuds that can read your brain waves

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Wearable tech, your Fitbit, smartwatch and the like. They can already do things like measure your heart rate or how well you’re sleeping just based on how you’re moving or signals through your skin. So, what do you think the next frontier might be in wearable tech? The next new thing devices can monitor and measure. Just think about it. Really think.

TAN LE: I use my earbuds every day because I want to know how my brain changes based on all of the things that I do, because my brain is changing all the time. It’s the most sophisticated learning apparatus that we have.

So I use my earbuds as a way to understand what’s happening to my brain as I play with my daughter, hang out with my cat, listen to music, work. And it’s really interesting. I learn a lot about myself. I learn a lot about what makes me happy and perform better. And when I’m really stressed, what impact that has on me.

CHAKRABARTI: This is Tan Le, co-founder and CEO of EMOTIV, one of a new crop of companies that sees great potential in BCI or brain computer interface technology.

Le believes the possibilities for such tech are endless. Helping the elderly experiencing cognitive decline, empowering the disabled community to perform actions simply through thinking. Even helping you understand yourself better how to be happier or more efficient.

Le says brain computer interface tech will one day be able to do all of these things. Through major advances in miniaturized electroencephalography technology or EEG, which can read signals from the human brain and send them to amplifiers, which in her company’s case are in those earbuds.

LE: It’s giving you feedback on your computer. So if I click on the icon to see what’s going on in my brain at the moment, I can see what’s happening in my brain. And then I can also see a report over the course of the day, when during the day my brain was in an optimal state. And then I can correlate that with what I was doing at that time.

So when I look back on my afternoon on Sunday, I knew exactly what I was doing. So I knew why that was different to the barrage of back-to-back meetings I had on Friday afternoon, which caused my brain to be a much more intense state. And so that allows me to change my day a little bit, carve out more time for focused work so that I can actually work more optimally.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Tan Le isn’t the only one who thinks this is utterly fascinating. Her three-year-old daughter sees her at her desk, wearing her earbuds and checking in on her state of mind.

LE: She said, Mommy, I want to see. And I said, This is mommy’s brain. And she said, I want to see my brain. And I said, You’re too little. So it doesn’t fit her. But she’s so intrigued by it.

CHAKRABARTI: Currently, EMOTIV earbuds are available only on their website. Le says she hopes that one day they’ll be available in stores for widespread use in the consumer market. But for now, her main clients are not consumers, they’re employers.

LE: One of our clients is JLL. JLL is a large real estate organization, and JLL came to us saying that, you know, the future of work is changing rapidly. How can we design our workplaces better so that we can make sure that when people are at work, they’re getting what they want from the work environment?

So in that case, we will invite volunteers within the organization to sign up for a research study where they will wear a device for a certain period of time. And what we do is we capture brain data from those experiences in order to try and map out what is the relationship between an environment that’s conducive to teamwork and collaboration. This is something that doesn’t actually achieve those desired outcomes.

CHAKRABARTI: By the way, JLL is also known as Jones Lang LaSalle, Inc, one of the largest real estate companies in the world, ranked 185th on the Fortune $520 billion in revenue last year and 100,000 employees worldwide, some of which have been asked to participate in the kind of research study Le mentioned. So what happens to the data those employees’ brains are pumping out into EMOTIV earbuds?

LE: What’s really important about EMOTIV is that fundamentally we do not believe in how companies have transacted with data in the past. We are a company that was born about ten years ago. And so we’ve seen a lot of the changes in the public’s view of how data is mined for corporate advantage without the informed consent of the users and participants.

And so we conduct ourselves in a very thoughtful and ethical manner in regards to data. The users need to have control of when they collect data, how data is shared, and in fact, we don’t sell or share your data with anyone without explicit consent.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, this is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti and that was Tan Le, co-founder and CEO of the Neurotechnology firm EMOTIV, one of a new group of companies that’s rapidly advancing the possibilities of brain computer interface technology. Well, my guest today says the positive possibilities of such tech are exciting and essential. But it’s naive to think that power to read brainwaves will be used exclusively for good because the potential for exploitation is just too great, both by corporations and governments. So she says now, as brain computer face, technology is starting to enter our lives and our minds. Now is the time to establish new rules, to defend the right, to think freely and to keep our minds, our own private property.

Book Excerpt

From The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology by Nita A. Farahany. Copyright © 2023 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.