Tech companies are getting into neuroscience. Should we worry?


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Consumer-facing neurotechnology could make computers more accessible — and pose a new kind of threat to data privacy.

The past few decades of neuroscience research have produced a wide array of technologies capable of measuring human brain activity. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, implanted electrode systems, and electroencephalograms, or EEGs, among other techniques, have helped researchers better understand how our brains respond to and control our bodies’ interactions with the world around us.

Now some of these technologies — most notably, EEG — have broken out of the lab and into the consumer market. The earliest of these consumer-facing neurotechnology devices, relatively simple systems that measured electrical signals conducted across the skull and scalp, were marketed mostly as focus trainers or meditation aids to so-called “biohackers” seeking to better themselves through technology. However, tech industry giants have lately taken notice, and they are exploring inventive new ways to make use of the inner electrical conversations in our brains.

In 2019, Meta, then still known as Facebook, paid nearly $1 billion to purchase CTRL-Labs, a startup whose flagship product was a wristband that detects neuromotor signals, allowing the wearer to manipulate a computer system using a range of forearm, hand, and finger movements. Last year, Snap, the parent company managing Snapchat, spent an undisclosed sum to acquire NextMind, whose headset uses EEG technology to let a user “push a virtual button simply by focusing on it.” Even Valve, the video game publisher that manages the massive Steam video game store, has partnered with brain-computer interface developer OpenBCI, with an eye toward integrating brain-computer interfaces into virtual reality headsets.

The promise of these systems is to give users a new, potentially more widely accessible way to control computers — an alternative to standard interfaces such as mouses, handheld controllers, and touchscreens. What is sure to appeal to tech industry behemoths, however, are the troves of real-time data that these devices collect about a person’s neuronal activity. This latest revolution in neurotech could conceivably yield a windfall for companies like Meta and Snap, which have built their business models around data-driven advertising. For the average consumer, however, it may portend a new kind of threat to data privacy — one that regulators seem woefully unprepared to corral.

Companies like Meta and Snap make substantial profits by collecting data on users’ web activity, using those data to identify highly specific target demographics for advertising clients, and selling access to user information to third-party businesses and researchers. A key tenet of this model is the idea that, with enough information about individuals and their habits, developers can divine, with fine-tooth specificity, how a certain person will respond to certain advertisements. To that end, companies might use feedback surveys to try to determine whether or not an ad was successful, or track people’s online interactions with ads through measures such as clickthrough rates or the time a person spends hovering their mouse pointer over a given image or video.

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