Smart devices can now sense your mood and thoughts raising new worries about permission and technology

An airline employee ordered me to remove my face mask while waiting to board an aircraft on a recent trip out of town so that facial recognition technology could check me in and speed my boarding procedure. I was taken aback by the request’s bluntness; I didn’t want to remove my mask in such a crowded environment, and I hadn’t granted permission for my face to be scanned.

While this interaction seemed like an invasion of my privacy, it also made me think about other biometric recognition systems that are now part of our daily lives, for better or worse.

Fingerprint scanners that open doors and face recognition that permits payment through phone are two obvious examples. Other gadgets, on the other hand, can do more than just scanning images; they can read people’s minds.

Personal Robot Assistant

Relevant: Personal Robot Assistant

Humans and machines

Researchers in human factors engineering have recently focused their attention on the development of machine vision systems. These systems sense overt biological signals — for example, the direction of eye gaze or heart rate — to estimate cognitive states like distraction or fatigue.

A case can be made that these devices hold undeniable benefits in certain situations, such as driving. Human factors like distracted driving, which ranks among the top contributors of road fatalities, could be all but eliminated following an adequate introduction of these systems. Proposals to mandate the use of these devices are being introduced worldwide.

The use presented by none other than Elon Musk’s Neuralink firm is a different but equally crucial one. Musk depicted a near-future where brain implants will assist people suffering from paralysis recover control of their limbs with a brain implant in a December 2021 visit at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit.

While the concept and, in fact, the reality of brain-computer interfaces has existed since the 1960s, the thought of an implanted device having direct access to the brain is disconcerting, to say the least.

It’s not only these devices’ ability to create a direct bridge between the human brain and the outside world that frightens me: what will happen to the data being harvested and who will have access to it?

Cognitive freedom

This opens up the question of what, in regard to neuroethics — the body of interdisciplinary studies exploring the ethical issues related to neuroscience — is referred to as cognitive freedom.

Italian cognitive scientist Andrea Lavazza defines cognitive freedom as “the possibility of elaborating one’s own thoughts autonomously, without interference, and of revealing them totally, partially or not at all on the basis of a personal decision.” Cognitive freedom is brought to the forefront when technology has reached a point where it can monitor or even manipulate mental states as a means of cognitive enhancement for professionals like physicians or pilots.

Or, as Lavazza says, “it would not be that unusual for the criminal justice system to oblige a person convicted of a violent act to undergo [a brain implant] in mind to control any subsequent aggressive impulses.”

The argument centers on the implications of the development and deployment of biological sensors and technologies such as brain-computer interfaces on human lives. Not just in neuroethics, where neuro-rights projects are springing up all over the world, but also in the larger civil realm, where it is being contested whether activities performed with an implant should be controlled by the same rules that govern traditional physical motions.

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