Card79 Brings Brain Computer Interfaces to SXSWThree experts look to the future of BCI technology

Written by Anna Savina

Austin, TX – On March 14, Card79 design studio hosted a panel – moderated by CEO Afshin Mehin – called The Fact or Fiction of Brain Computer Interfaces at SXSW 2022. The studio has collaborated with companies such as Neuralink to design powerful consumer-based BCI products to bring this innovative technology into the hands of everyday people. At SXSW, Card79 invited three industry experts to give their perspectives on the future opportunities and challenges that come with developing BCI technology.

In case you missed the conversation, we held a Q&A with the panelists about the future of brain computer interface (BCI) technology. This is what Yujie Wang, Nastasha Tan, and Sergey Stavisky had to say…

What drew you to the world of BCIs?

Yujie Wang, MIT Design Engineer

My interest in attention management drew me to the world of BCI. I’m passionate about shaping human relationships with machines and the environment. 

We live in an era of extraction of both natural resources and attention. I’m focusing on innovation as well as ethics of BCI research and product development.  

Nastasha Tan, Head Designer at Aurora

While I am not working [directly] in the BCI domain, I am interested in it because of my background in cognitive science and neuroscience. 

I’ve dedicated my design career to shaping future interfaces — for example, I was designing the future of smartphones as ‘personal assistants’ at Samsung before this concept became so ubiquitous. Right now, I’m working on self-driving experiences at Aurora.

Sergey Stavisky, Assistant Professor at the University of California, Davis

I became interested in BCIs when I was an undergraduate at Brown. At the time, the very first BrainGate trial using Utah arrays was starting…

 I thought it was the coolest thing. It resonated with me because I wanted to do something in the medical field, enjoyed building things and coding, and was trying to understand how the mind works.

What applications of BCIs do you see as valuable?

Yujie: Clinical applications and support for neurodiverse groups with dignity, such as speech/motor control restoration or new modes of communication. User facing applications like attention/situation awareness support for productivity (learning and working) and life-critical tasks (such as driving). Creative applications like creativity stimulation for self-discovery and art.

Nastasha: Augmentation of human abilities. Faster information sharing and improved situational awareness could lead to more rapid and accurate decisions. People’s memory, attention spans, and cognitive performance could be improved. 

Sergey: In the shorter term, medical “neuro-restoration” applications include restoring sensation (e.g. BCIs that write in vision and hearing) and restoring movement/communication (e.g., brain driven typing, speech and robotic arms).

In the longer term, I predict much higher channel count read-and-write devices will profoundly impact how we treat psychiatric diseases that are amongst the largest worldwide causes of morbidity… As better hardware reaches human medical applications, I think both the basic and applied human neuroscience will progress quickly.

“Neuro-restoration” aims to restore lost bodily functions. This includes pairing BCIs with prosthetic or robot limbs. Photo by ThisIsEngineering

I think it’s great that there’s so much more awareness of BCIs than a few years ago, but at times that excitement has serious downsides. I worry it can create unrealistic expectations… 

Sergey Stavisky

What ethical rules do you think should be taken into consideration for designing and using BCIs?

Yujie: To me, [dream hacking] is one of my biggest concerns for BCI technology… Dream hacking or dream incubation is a technique when, with the help of BCI, a person can influence their dreams by focusing attention on a specific issue right before going to sleep. In theory, it may stimulate our creativity. However, this technique can also make us vulnerable to subliminal advertising. 

Sleep scientists state that… what we see when we’re asleep shapes our reality when we’re awake. Regulatory effects are way behind for dream advertising, and we must act now to prevent it:

Transparency and accountability [are necessary when designing BCIs]. Be sure to inform the subjects about the methods you’re using, what brain information is being detected, and what aspects of reality are being manipulated or interpreted based on what criteria. Be clear who is responsible for what in which scenario in the application of BCI. When it comes to privacy concerns, always provide options to users and don’t make any presumptions.

Regulatory effects may be necessary to prevent BCIs from influencing dreams through subliminal messaging. Photo by SHVETS production

To me, [dream hacking] is one of my biggest concerns for BCI technology…Regulatory effects are way behind for dream advertising, and we must act now to prevent it

Yujie Wang

Nastasha: Because BCIs directly access the brain, I think it’s important for the industry to update basic human rights to address autonomy and create guiding principles around designing interactions between human-to-technologies that are more about establishing partnership rather than decision-maker.   

Start with people. Invest time in understanding the needs of those we are designing for before investing in solutions. Generally, emerging technologies like BCIs need to respond to actual needs, and there is always a danger of falling in love with an exquisite technology and developing something just because it’s possible. 

Design for agency. …Designing BCIs to enable people to be self-governing and as a partner to the individual, rather than as an executive decision maker would allow for people to maintain their autonomy and build trust in BCIs. Because BCIs are constantly evolving your thinking or decision-making, giving people the ultimate decision so there is room for their own judgment will prevent compromising their agency.  

Novel technology generates a lot of public excitement which begs the question, just because we can create it, should we? Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Generally, emerging technologies like BCIs need to respond to actual needs, and there is always a danger of falling in love with an exquisite technology and developing something just because it’s possible. 

Nastasha Tan

Sergey: I think it’s great that there’s so much more awareness of BCIs than a few years ago, but at times that excitement has serious downsides. I worry it can create unrealistic expectations among the public…  I would hate for someone out there to… [decline] a currently available proven treatment or a clinical trial because they have been overpromised that something way better is “just around the corner” when, in fact, it could be many years away. 

The BCI field is very broad, so it’s hard to advise anything without knowing specific context. I want to emphasize that there’s a big range in how invasive different BCI technologies can be, and what kind of information they can measure and/or how specifically they can affect the brain. 

A piece of practical advice I’d therefore give is to think deeply about what type of neural interface you need for a particular application; making the right choice early on will help you make your project more successful.

What do you find inspiring about the state of the field now?

Yujie: Innovation not only in terms of radical technology change, but also the change of meaning making, how everyone sees and perceives BCIs in our daily life. [As well as the] strong ethical considerations that go along with the research and product development, and awareness of regulation. 

Nastasha: I think it’s incredibly exciting to see how neurotechnologies like BCIs can profoundly shape a person’s life… As a designer who is always thinking about accessibility in what we design, I’m particularly excited that BCIs widen accessibility for all kinds of differently abled people — not limited to just input devices that are biased toward the visually or the haptically abled. 

Sergey: It feels like the field of medical BCIs is rapidly developing. We’re seeing decades of preclinical research in animal models actually working on people, and at the same time, there’s so much more investment in better neural interface hardware that we’ll need to make the next big step in this area.

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Founded in 2014 by Afshin Mehin, Card79 is a design studio located in San Francisco with an extensive dedication to the presentation, development and support of new products through excellent design services. Our mission is to give form to the future with an emphasis placed on innovation.

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