by Afshin Mehin and Anna Savina
We are in the very early days of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and there are still years of scientific research that needs to be carried out to get anywhere near creating powerful consumer-based BCI products. But, as designers, we believe it’s important to imagine what types of experiences this technology would enable in order to create the human-centered future for BCI.
In this article, we will use our empathy and creativity to describe how possible BCI-enabled user experiences of the future may look. By starting early and following the research closely, we can have some space to think of different paths for BCI and create truly relevant and helpful devices in the future.
The long road: A quick primer on BCI
Over the past several decades, computer interfaces made several massive leaps, and each of them led to new, more intuitive ways for people to interact with computers. We went from graphical user interfaces (GUI) and operating big desktop computers with the help of a keyboard and a mouth, to laptops, and then touch interfaces used for modern smartphones and tablets. And though smartphones allow us to have a powerful computer whenever we go, this was just a start.
In recent years, computers have become almost invisible, they are just a part of the ambiance. The maturation of natural language processing has allowed voice assistants to understand verbal commands and allow for a hands free experience. In the meantime, modern sensors and radars allowed designers to create smart clothing that can be controlled with touch — for example, Google ATAP’s Project Jacquard developed a jacket that helps the owner navigate the city without interacting with a screen.
Smartphones, smart speakers, and wearable devices became an extension of our bodies, and, naturally, scientists started exploring the idea of humans directly controlling computers with their brain alone. What’s really appealing about BCI is that our brains have a huge bandwidth for processing information which means that if BCIs work, there will be no delay between our intention and a desired action/outcome.
However, existing BCIs are slow and don’t operate like smart interfaces from sci-fi movies and books. Right now, BCI researchers are working on replicating the speed of typing or speech — exceeding this speed is still an aspiration, not a reality.
The present day BCI’s are primarily serving people with disabilities to control technologies with their thoughts. Krishna Shenoy’s lab at Stanford University is leveraging electrodes located in the motor cortex of patients with locked-in syndrome to move a cursor to select objects on the screen or to use a cursor to write in “graffiti” by imagining that a patient is using their hands to write with. The Chang Lab is able to read brain signals that control the ability to create speech in order to decode language but the speeds are still far lower than typing on regular keyboard.
Many scientists agree that with enough electrodes getting closer to firing neurons (via invasive or non-invasive BCI), enough machine learning capabilities, and, of course, enough academic research we will eventually be able to use our understanding of the brain to create very mature BCIs that are way faster and more effective than what is available now.
What BCIs can be really good at
So what if BCI extends beyond enabling people with physical disabilities? What would that new interface look like and why would it be better than what we have now? Let’s assume that BCI unlocks the potential of high bandwidth communication. The idea of being able to think faster than you can talk or type is undoubtedly one of the most appealing elements for anyone who would develop consumer products based on BCI. But that is not the only possibility for this new type of technology. We decided to go further and outline key advantages of brain-powered technology.
One superpower of BCI is the sheer covertness of thinking. That can lead to many different outcomes.
First, it can allow you to prompt your internal AI with questions or data queries and as a result, the system would you feel like you have superhuman intelligence. Because of the speed that BCI enables, it would look like you didn’t use a computer to search for a fact but just knew what 2324 multiplied by 8 is, what is the capital of Uruguay, etc. Also, BCI would make your everyday life and navigation easier as a lot of services like maps, Yelp recommendations, and weather could be accessed without looking at your phone or computer.
It can also allow you to communicate with people without others around you noticing. That can mean you would be able to have more immediate access to your loved ones and connect with them without feeling like you have a technological layer separating you. Another benefit of this BCI use case is communicating in a noisy place or sharing private details in a public setting.
Another big advantage of BCIs is their versatility and intuitiveness. Scientists use machine learning to unpack and make sense of the neuronal signals. That same technology can be also used to understand an individual’s brain structure and create a unique and adaptable system that can fit a person better over time like a pair of well worn leather gloves.
What BCIs can be really bad at
Products based on BCIs can unlock a lot of new opportunities and make their owners feel almost superhuman but a lot of people are scared of them because allowing a computer working in close contact with human consciousness has always been a theme of dystopian sci-fi. Assuming that the process of installing (invasive or non-invasive) BCI is safe, the next concern is privacy and loss of control.
And those naysayers have a right to be scared, especially if we look at the current state of computing and the types of problems Web 2.0 created. A lot of skeptics imagine that BCI can become another platform for targeted ads and surveillance.
If our thoughts aren’t 100% off limits for companies, governments, or malicious actors, there is very little left for us to feel like we truly have free will. Since BCI is still super new, companies are proposing different system architecture that would theoretically protect people’s data, such as Federated Learning and Differential privacy, but it’s still early days so there is still a lot to be learned about what security will actually look like for BCIs
The idea of BCI’s adaptability mentioned earlier is also a potential risk. Just as a person learns to adjust to a new user experience over time, people who get used to BCI could find it very difficult to navigate the world without a computer helping them and providing them with suggestions, advice, and directions at all times.There is a possibility that people may actually get less intelligent over time with the introduction of BCIs.
Designing safe and human-centric BCI devices
As we were thinking of BCI and working on projects like the early Neuralink hardware prototype, we came up with several principles that we would like to maintain when we design BCI devices of the future.
Design principle #1: Ensure privacy and transparency
In the future, we want people to be sure their thoughts remain their own. That means that the engineers and scientists that are building out BCI technology need to create a layer that is separated from the internet.
In terms of how that technology is communicated to the user, this should feel like a moated castle for your mind that filters and limits what kind of information comes and goes into your brain. That’s why in the “A Day in the Mind” POV video we created, the protagonist is prompted to turn on and connect his “encrypted” neural connection to his HeadOS before starting to use it. These types of interactions are inspired by consumer data protection startups like Winston and Helm that simplify data protection and make it accessible for consumers.
We believe that it would be necessary that BCI system interface and user interactions enable a high level of accountability and transparency so that users really do have control and visibility into what is passing into and out of their mind.
Design principle #2: Enable control
It’s crucial to create interfaces that prioritize users’ safety and control. That’s why we wanted to provide a user with a sense of agency. Things should never feel overwhelming or happening without the user being fully aware of them.
In our “Day in the Mind” POV video, when the protagonist wakes up, he activates his BCI by swiping on his smartphone. No matter how archaic it might feel to swipe with your finger when he has a BCI, the important thing is that he initiates the connection with his digital assistant. Later in the video, when the main character is at work and he is being flooded with notifications, he is able to shut them down by asking his digital assistant to pause all notifications until later.
Design principle #3: Carefully design default settings
Decisions that designers make in this space will impact how people think, we need to be especially careful when we are creating default settings for BCI-enabled devices. The way these options are set up will have a tremendous influence on how people will be encouraged to think. This connection between default settings and interactions they create is described in the book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness”. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have also seen dark UI patterns that encourage people to make decisions that were not in their best interest.
Design principle #4: An integrated hardware architecture
If BCI’s do reach their amazing potential, we will also need new kinds of smart hardware devices to provide a seamless user experience. Possibly, we will see innovative glasses or smart contact lenses that can provide users with quick visual feedback to confirm that their outgoing BCI controls are working. This combination will make the experience much more intuitive since we are all used to interacting with visual interfaces. We will need other types of new technologies as well — for example, bone conduction audio to create a “voice in your head” for a digital assistant accompanying BCIs.
Looking into the crystal ball of the future, it’s still unclear how powerful BCIs can become. But as we unlock the inner workings of the brain, it’s exciting to imagine what kind of interfaces we can create. Regardless of whether or not BCIs would give us superpowers, understanding the brain gives us a lot of insight for designing better products and services. We hope that if we leverage scientific research, we will be able to create a future that looks more like Tales From The Loop than an episode of Black Mirror — more empathetic, human, and warm.