Stephen Rainey’s Posts

Regulating The Untapped Trove Of Brain Data

Written by Stephen Rainey and Christoph Bublitz

Increasing use of brain data, either from research contexts, medical device use, or in the growing consumer brain-tech sector raises privacy concerns. Some already call for international regulation, especially as consumer neurotech is about to enter the market more widely. In this post, we wish to look at the regulation of brain data under the GDPR and suggest a modified understanding to provide better protection of such data.

In medicine, the use of brain-reading devices is increasing, e.g. Brain-Computer-Interfaces that afford communication, control of neural or motor prostheses. But there is also a range of non-medical applications devices in development, for applications from gaming to the workplace.

Currently marketed ones, e.g. by Emotiv, Neurosky, are not yet widespread, which might be owing to a lack of apps or issues with ease of use, or perhaps just a lack of perceived need. However, various tech companies have announced their entrance to the field, and have invested significant sums. Kernel, a three year old multi-million dollar company based in Los Angeles, wants to ‘hack the human brain’. More recently, they are joined by Facebook, who want to develop a means of controlling devices directly with data derived from the brain (to be developed by their not-at-all-sinister sounding ‘Building 8’ group). Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s ‘Neuralink’ is a venture which aims to ‘merge the brain with AI’ by means of a ‘wizard hat for the brain’. Whatever that means, it’s likely to be based in recording and stimulating the brain.

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Entitlement

Written by Stephen Rainey

It is often claimed, especially in heated Twitter debates, that one or other participant is entitled to their opinion. Sometimes, if someone encounters a challenge to their picture of the world, they will retort that they are entitled to their opinion. Or, maybe in an attempt to avoid confrontation, disagreement is sometimes brushed over by stating that whatever else may be going on, everyone is entitled to their opinion. This use of the phrase is highlighted in a recent piece in The Conversation. There, Patrick Stokes writes,

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful.

I think this is right, and a problem well identified. Nevertheless, it’s not like no one, ever, is entitled to an opinion. So when are you, am I, are we, entitled to our opinion? What does it take to be entitled to an opinion?

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Better Living Through Neurotechnology

Written by Stephen Rainey

If ‘neurotechnology’ isn’t a glamour area for researchers yet, it’s not far off. Technologies centred upon reading the brain are rapidly being developed. Among the claims made of such neurotechnologies are that some can provide special access to normally hidden representations of consciousness. Through recording, processing, and making operational brain signals we are promised greater understanding of our own brain processes. Since every conscious process is thought to be enacted, or subserved, or realised by a neural process, we get greater understanding of our consciousness.

Besides understanding, these technologies provide opportunities for cognitive optimisation and enhancement too. By getting a handle on our obscure cognitive processes, we can get the chance to manipulate them. By representing our own consciousness to ourselves, through a neurofeedback device for instance, we can try to monitor and alter the processes we witness, changing our minds in a very literal sense.

This looks like some kind of technological mind-reading, and perhaps too good to be true. Is neurotechnology overclaiming its prospects? Maybe more pressingly, is it understating its difficulties? Continue reading

Listen Carefully

Written by Stephen Rainey, and Jason Walsh

Rhetoric about free speech as under attack is an enduring point of discussion across the media. It appears on the political agenda, in various degrees of concreteness and abstraction. By some definitions, free speech amounts to an unrestrained liberty to say whatever one pleases. On others, it’s carefully framed to exclude types of speech centrally intended to cause harm.

At the same time, more than ever the physical environment is a focus of both public and political attention. Following the BBC’s ‘Blue Planet Two’ documentary series, for instance, a huge impetus gathered around the risk of micro-plastics to our water supply, and, indeed, how plastics in general damage the environment. As with many such issues people have been happy to act. Following, belatedly, Ireland’s example, plastic bag use has plummeted in the UK, helped along by the introduction of a tax.

There are always those few who just don’t care but, when it comes to our shared natural spaces, we’re generally pretty good at reacting. Be it taxing plastic bags, switching to paper straws, or supporting pedestrianisation of polluted areas, there is the chance for open conversations about the spaces we must share. Environmental awareness and anti-pollution attitudes are as close to shared politics as we might get, at least in terms of what’s at stake. Can the same be said for the informational environment that we share? Continue reading

Ethics Goes on Holiday

By Stephen Rainey

Summer time, and the living is ethically perplexing. Hordes of holidaymakers, the shimmering sea, busy beaches, and one sun over it all. How can the eager ethicist assess how to make the most of a fortnight away? We all know how we can generally make the most of things – but how ought we to treat the beach while we’re away? Should we think of our own pleasure, the pleasure of all, or something else? Here, we can explore some options, and get some answers. Continue reading

Treating the Dead Well

Written by Stephen Rainey

What happens after we die? This might be taken as an eschatological question, seeking some explanation or reassurance around the destiny of an immortal soul or some such vital element of our very being. But there is another sense that has at least as much importance. What should we do with dead bodies?

According to a Yougov survey from 2016, a majority of UK residents prefer cremation over burial, with their ashes scattered in some meaningful place. This could be good news, given the apparent dwindling of burial space globally. In the face of this sort of constraint, the re-use of graves becomes necessary, which can cause distress to the families of even the long dead.

Less commonly, dead bodies can be donated to medical science and put to use for purposes of research and medical training. Research suggests the rate is low owing to ‘non-cognitive factors’ such as ‘the desire to maintain bodily integrity, worries that signing a donor card might ‘jinx’ a person, and medical mistrust.’

Maybe we should think again about how we treat dead bodies. There could come a time when cremation and burial might be considered a waste of resources, given the uses to which cadavers can be put. One body can be used to train many surgeons in complex procedures by being pared into relevant sections – individual limbs, organ systems, brains. Nevertheless, whilst a corpse is indeed a valuable object, it was also previously a subject. The nature of bodies as post-persons does seem to deserve some special consideration. If we can account for this, we might be in a position to recommend very generally why we ought to respect the bodies of the dead. Continue reading

Scrabbling for Augmentation

By Stephen Rainey

 

Around a decade ago, Facebook users were widely playing a game called ‘Scrabulous’ with one another. It was pretty close to Scrabble, effectively, leading to a few legal issues.

Alongside Scrabulous, the popularity of Scrabble-assistance websites grew. Looking over the shoulders of work colleagues, you could often spy a Scrabulous window, as well as one for scrabblesolver.co.uk too. The strange phenomenon of easy, online Scrabulous cheating seemed pervasive for a time.

The strangeness of this can hardly be overstated. Friends would be routinely trying to pretend to one another that they were superior wordsmiths, by each deploying algorithmic anagram solvers. The ‘players’ themselves would do nothing but input data to the automatic solvers. As Charlie Brooker reported back in 2007,

“We’d rendered ourselves obsolete. It was 100% uncensored computer-on-computer action, with two meat puppets pulling the levers, fooling no one but themselves.”

Back to the present, and online Scrabble appears to have lost its sheen (or lustre, patina, or polish). But in a possible near future, I wonder if some similar issues could arise. Continue reading

Neuroblame?

Written by Stephen Rainey

Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), or brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), are technologies controlled directly by the brain. They are increasingly well known in terms of therapeutic contexts. We have probably all seen the remarkable advances in prosthetic limbs that can be controlled directly by the brain. Brain-controlled legs, arms, and hands allow natural-like mobility to be restored where limbs had been lost. Neuroprosthetic devices connected directly to the brain allow communication to be restored in cases where linguistic ability is impaired or missing.

It is often said that such devices are controlled ‘by thoughts’. This isn’t strictly true, as it is the brain that the devices read, not the mind. In a sense, unnatural patterns of neural activity must be realised to trigger and control devices. Producing the patterns is a learned behaviour – the brain is put to use by the device owner in order to operate it. This distinction between thought-reading and brain-reading might have important consequences for some conceivable scenarios. To think these through, we’ll indulge in a little bit of ‘science fiction prototyping’.

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Talking Back to Science?

By Stephen Rainey

In June 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that it was legal for a French citizen to sue a drug company for damages following a vaccination, and an illness. The ruling caused some consternation as it seemed a legal vindication of anecdote over scientific rigour.

This is a dramatic case, not least owing to the position in which vaccines find themselves, post Andrew Wakefield and the rise of the anti-vaxxer movement. Nevertheless, it forms a part of a wider narrative in which scientific activity is not always very open to questions from outside science. This broader theme is worth some scrutiny. Continue reading

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