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.

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.

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.

“A thought-based interface is the ability to engage with technology, interface with it, not using your fingers to type, not using your voice to speak, but simply using your mind to think.” 

Last month, Afshin Mehin, our founder and lead designer, sat down with the hosts of the Liftoff by Bottle Rocket podcast to have a colorful conversation about the future of Thought-Based Interfaces. The conversation went in a lot of interesting directions asking questions like: what would thought-based interfaces be good for? What are thoughts exactly anyways? How will we interact with thought-based interfaces? And what are the ethical Implications of thought-based interfaces? The full podcast is available to listen here, otherwise you can read the condensed version of our conversation below.

As a studio we’ve always been interested in new technologies that can change the way that we live our lives. We worked with Neuralink for the last couple of years to carry out the industrial design for the Neuralink wearable implantable device as well as the outer enclosure of their surgical robot. After completing the work for Neuralink, the Card79 team took it upon themselves to start to ask themselves what the User Experience of a Brain Computer Interface could feel like and what it would be good for.

Brain computer interfaces have been around for a while and there is presently a huge push within the scientific neuroscience and neurotech community to better understand how to create interfaces for people with limited physical capabilities who can use BCI’s to improve their daily lives. During these developments, these scientists and engineers are digging deeper into how the brain works and trying to create a holistic understanding of how the brain works.

The Liftoff Podcast conversation looks at this from a designers perspective asking how this technology could impact people’s lives in both positive and negative ways and what the user experience might look like for both people using this technology as an assistive technology as well as broader applications that could also apply to non-disabled people. 

Have a listen!

For more information about Liftoff: https://hubs.li/H0Bq3T40