Exploring the Potential of Brain-Computer Interfaces:

A Reflection on the SXSW 2023 Panel

At this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, we hosted the  urgent and (provocatively) titled  panel discussion “Does ‘Mind Control for Good’ Exist?” The panel brought together experts from various fields to discuss recent developments in Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), their potential opportunities and risks, and how they can be designed to enable and empower people for good.

Moderated by Benjamin Hersh from Google, the session featured Card 79’s very own Afshin Mehin, Jacob Robinson of Motif Neurotech, and Anna Wexler, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Together, they explored diverse aspects of BCI, ranging from consumer ethics to design challenges and their potential applications in mental health treatment.

Consumer Ethics and BCI
Nathan Copeland started using a brain-computer interface in 2015 as part of a research study. COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH

Anna Wexler opened the discussion by addressing the ethical implications of neurotech making its way into the consumer realm. She believes that the value and trade-offs associated with BCI devices need to be thoroughly considered. This includes not only medical risks but also privacy concerns and other potential drawbacks. She argued that the media’s futuristic portrayal of BCIs lacks a clear explanation of what these devices will do for users.

As this technology develops, however, questions arise about where the boundary lies between its medical and recreational applications. Many of the devices currently being developed are designed for medical purposes, but as technology advances, it is likely that they will make their way into the consumer realm. The question then becomes, what will these devices look like, and what ethical implications will they have?

These are some of the most important questions that must be answered if we are to fully understand the implications of this emerging technology.

“The possibility of having the brain-computer interface as assistive technology is really exciting, and I think a good number of population will need it.”

Anna Wexler
BCI for Therapeutic Benefits and Mental Health Disorder Treatment
Minimally invasive electronic solutions for mental health. COURTESY OF MOTIF NEUROTECH

Jacob Robinson emphasized the potential benefits of BCI technology in treating mental health disorders that are not effectively managed with pharmaceuticals, such as depression, PTSD, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s disease. He described how BCIs could target the networks underlying these disorders, thereby providing a more effective treatment option. 

While the current focus of BCI research is on assisting those with severe impairments, the potential for BCIs to transform the treatment of neurological disorders is hugely exciting. By tapping into the underlying networks of these conditions, BCIs could eventually replace or augment drug therapies that have limited efficacy for many individuals. The possibilities for BCIs to improve the lives of those with neurological disorders are endless, but the challenge has been in bridging the science into products.

While acknowledging that we are still far from fully realizing these possibilities, Robinson believes that the current work is just the beginning of a journey to develop therapeutic BCIs for mood, memory, and attention.

“The science has been developed. The question is how can we bridge that science into products. That is exciting today.”

Jacob Robinson
Design Challenges and Implementation of BCI Technology

Food for Thought Based Interfaces (BCIs) is a collection of short sketch videos that envision a future where brain-computer technology is commonplace.

He expressed a desire for design studios like Card79 to play a more significant role in translating cutting-edge scientific research into real-life applications by collaborating closely with technologists and scientists. He explained that by working alongside these other disciplines, these new advancements are embedded with a humanistic lens early in their development. The ethical concerns posed by BCIs, such as privacy and data transparency, need to be addressed in the early days, especially considering the track record of social media over the last 15 years.

He reiterated that the goal at the end of the day is creating a strong foundation for how users should use the BCI technology and focusing the initial applications on the people who would most benefit from it.

“I want to build out the necessary tools and resources to be able to accelerate our ability to work with technologists and neuroscientists to be able to add value through design.”

Afshin Mehin
The Future of BCI Technology

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are becoming increasingly prevalent, and there is much speculation about the future of this technology. The panelists agreed that while BCIs have not yet been used for nefarious purposes, the potential exists. They emphasized the importance of developing the technology responsibly, keeping in mind the different ethical, legal, and social considerations. Issues around privacy, control, and transparency raise important questions about where the data is going and what is being done with it. 

One exciting possibility for BCIs is that they could become enabling tools, whether for communication or for dealing with mental health situations. They expressed hope for a future in which BCI technology is developed and implemented equitably and responsibly, benefiting those who need it most without compromising their agency or humanity. 

As we learn more about the brain and its mysteries, the potential for BCIs to unlock new possibilities for communication, mental health treatment, and overall well-being is immense. At the same time, It’s crucial to approach this emerging technology with caution and awareness to ensure that its development remains focused on empowering and enabling individuals for good. Because the implications of BCIs are so great, it is essential to carefully consider their implications well in advance.

Exploring Future Possibilities with Brain-Computer Interfaces

In the pursuit of developing brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), there are a lot of philosophical and ethical concerns that need to be addressed. However, as this technology continues to evolve, it’s important not to fall into the trap of only imagining dystopian futures. Instead, we need to create an environment that is conducive to scientific discovery and technical development while at the same time continuing to use design to envision future scenarios to stay one step ahead and enabling proactive conversations around ethics and policy, staying one step ahead and strive to create a world where technology is a force for good.