Davos AM23 - Ready for Brain Transparency?

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Hello, everybody. I'm Nicholas Thompson. I'm the CEO of the Atlantic and I will be your moderator today
We are going to have an incredible session star the show is Nita Farahani
She's a futurist and legal ethicist at Duke and she's so smart and so interesting. You're gonna learn time
This is how it's gonna work. We're gonna watch a short video
She's gonna come on stage talk and then we're gonna do a little Q&A questions from the audience
And that'll be a wrap and you'll leave enlightened and excited. So first off a video
It's gonna make you see the future and understand a wonderful future where we can use brainwaves to fight crime
Be more productive and find love. Let's roll
You're in the zone even you can't believe how productive you've been your memo is finished
Your inbox is under control and you're feeling sharper than you have in a decade
Sensing your joy your playlist shifts to your favorite song
Sending chills up your spine as the music begins to play
You glance at the program running in the background on your computer screen and notice a now familiar site
That appears whenever you're overloaded with pleasure
Your theta brainwave activity decreasing in the temporal regions of your brain
You mentally move the cursor to the left and scroll through your brain data over the past few hours
You can see your stress levels rising as the deadline to finish your memo approached
Causing a peak in your beta brainwave activity right before an alert popped up telling you to take a brain break
But what's that unusual change in your brain activity when you're asleep?
It started earlier in the month
You send a text message to your doctor with a mental swipe of your cursor
Could you take a quick look at my brain data?
Anything to worry about?
Your mind starts to wander to the new colleague on your team whom you know
You shouldn't be daydreaming about given the policy against intra office romance, but you can't help fantasizing just a little
But then you start to worry that your boss will notice your amorous feelings when she checks your brain activity and
Shift your attention back to the present
You breathe a sigh of relief when the email she sends you later that day
Congratulates you on your brain metrics from the past quarter, which have earned you another performance bonus
You head home jamming to the music with your work issued brain something earbud still in
When you arrive at work the next day a somber cloud has fallen over the office
Along with emails text messages and GPS location data
The government has subpoenaed employees brainwave data from the past year
They have compelling evidence that one of your co-workers has committed massive wire fraud
Now they're looking for his co-conspirators
You discover they are looking for synchronized brain activity between your co-worker and the people he has been working with
While you know you're innocent of any crime. You've been secretly working with him on a new startup venture
Shaking you remove your earbuds
What do you think is it a future you're ready for
You may be surprised to learn that it's a future that has already arrived
Everything in that video that you just saw is based on technology that is already here today
artificial intelligence has enabled
advances in
Decoding brain activity in ways that we never before thought possible. You've heard a lot about AI over
the past few years
Here at Davos. It's been the talk of the hour
But I want to talk about it in a different way
Which is the ability to?
Decode brainwave activity after all what you think what you feel
It's all just data
Data that in large patterns can be decoded using artificial intelligence
Consider this the average person thinks thousands of thoughts each day as a thought takes form like a math calculation
You're happy. You're tired. You're hungry. You're elated
Neurons are firing in your brain emitting tiny electrical discharges as
A particular thought takes form hundreds of thousands of neurons fire and characteristic patterns that can be decoded with
EEG or electroencephalography and AI
powered devices in fact
What you're seeing here is my brain activity while I'm wearing a simple device like the one on the right
We're not talking about
Implanted devices of the future. I'm talking about wearable devices that are like Fitbit sphere brain
It used to be that there was very little we could tell from EEG activity
But already using consumer wearable devices. These are headbands
Hats that have sensors that can pick up your brain wave activity ear buds
Headphones tiny tattoos that you can wear behind your ear. We can pick up emotional states
Like are you happy or sad or angry? We can pick up and decode faces
That you're seeing in your mind
Simple shapes numbers your pin number to your bank account
It's not just your brain activity here that we can pick up
We can also pick up your brain activity in different places like as your neurons fire from your brain down your arm and
Send signals to your hand to tell you how to type move
All of that could be decoded through
Electromyography and that's what you're seeing here as a device now in the form of a simple wearable watch
That can pick up that activity and one of the pivotal acquisitions of the field meta acquired this company control labs in 2019
Because major tech companies are investing and helping to make these devices
Applicable as the way in which we interact with the rest of our technology in fact the coming future and I mean near-term
Future is these devices being the primary way in which we interact with all of the rest of our technology
Rather than a mouse or a keyboard
You can simply swipe with your mind move your hand more seamlessly when you're in VR or AR
Use your brain as the way in which you interact with all of the rest of your technology, which is an exciting and promising future
But also a potentially scary one a
Transformative one one that will change the way that we interact with other people and even how we understand ourselves
Let's take a look
This is where some of our core technologies like EMG come into play
Neural interfaces when they work right and we still have a lot of work to go here
Feel like magic. So if you send a control to your muscle saying I want to move my finger
It starts in your brain. It goes down your spine through motor neurons and this is an electrical signal
So we should be able to grab that electrical signal on the muscle and say oh, okay
The user wants to move the finger
What is it like to feel like?
Pushing a button without actually pushing it that could be as simple as hey
I just want to move this cursor up or move it left
Well, normally I would do that by actually moving but here you're able to move that cursor left
And it's because you and a machine agreed which neurons mean left and which neurons mean right you're in this
constant conversation with the machine
This new form of control it requires us to build an interface that adapts to you and your environment
It's an exciting future a seamless future
It's a future that has already arrived in many contacts throughout the world and especially in
Workplaces, so it turns out that one of the most compelling early applications of this technology is to be able to decode at least some
simple effective states of individuals that can potentially improve their well-being
Potentially improve productivity, but certainly transform what our lives look like in the workplace and
In our everyday activities while we can't literally decode complex thought just yet
There's a lot that we can already decode that's quite relevant for the workplace environment
Consider the fact that right now many workplaces
Have individuals who have to be awake and alert at all times in order to do their jobs well
Sometimes that doesn't happen
Take this example where this trucker decided to take a 20-hour shot for a
1500 mile ride it's well exceeding the amount of time that any trucker long-haul trucker is supposed to drive
His employer didn't discover his choices until the fatal accident
That was disastrous for the company and cost many lives
But he could have known much sooner
He could have detected whether or not the trucker was entering into the earliest stages of micro sleep
Starting to go from being alert to tired well before it occurred and he could have done so through a simple hat a
simple wearable hat that has embedded
Electrode sensors that would pick up brainwave activity and give a score between one to five
To help the employer and the employee know what stage of alertness the person was experiencing and
Whether or not they were starting to fall asleep now. You might think okay. We have driver assist technology and cars already
Why do we need this? It's because this happens much sooner much more accurately and it gives you the real-time information that you need in
order to make choices to intervene before a person is
Parallelously exhausted and we as a society should want that we should want a technology that enables us to be safer to all be able to
Exist in an environment where commercial drivers or individuals who need to be wide awake are wide awake when they're supposed to be
Because when they're not
The consequences are disastrous
While playing crashes are much less frequent than other forms of accidents at least 16 playing crashes in the past decade
Have been attributed to pilot fatigue
Which is probably why in more than 5,000 companies across the world
Employees are already having their brainwave activity monitored to test for their fatigue levels
Whether it's the Beijing Shanghai line where train conductors are required to wear hats that have sensors that pick up their brain activity
Or mining companies throughout the world
Employees are already having their brain activity monitored and it may wear it very well may be something that we want to embrace as a society
Okay, you might be shuttering
Right that was certainly my first reaction when I discovered that we are tracking brainwave activity in the workplace and that we can do it at
All, but I believe we need to have a much more nuanced conversation about it because I think done. Well
Neurotechnology has extraordinary promise
Done poorly it could become the most oppressive technology. We've ever introduced in a wide scale across society
We still have the chance to make it right
All right
Well does the same analysis hold true if instead of trying to monitor whether a person is falling asleep or awake?
We decide that we want to monitor their attention levels to see whether or not they're paying attention and being productive. I would argue
Maybe not
How many of you wear something like an Apple watch?
Fitbit smart device. Yeah, many people. It's a many billion dollar company
I mean many billion dollar industry at this point wearable devices
Quantifiable self is just a widespread movement. Most people are very comfortable with at least some forms of human quantification
In fact, it's become so widespread
That most people feel like there's not that much to worry about when it comes to doing something like monitoring your heart rate
But it turns out that that kind of technology in the workplace
Particularly when it's used to monitor productivity of employees
Where they're moving throughout the factory floor whether or not they're taking breaks or unscheduled breaks is the kind of thing that employees
Resist unionize against rise up against and undermines morale
What we've seen consistently is companies from Amazon to Tesco to Walmart and others have introduced
What is considered to be bossware or surveillance technology that employees really don't like it even if it makes their lives better
Okay, well if you don't like your job just quit
But what if there's nowhere to go
What if everywhere has ubiquitous
Monitoring in fact during the pandemic what we found was that 80% of companies admitted that they use at least some forms of
So-called bossware technology to monitor the productivity of their employees whether it's a white-collar
Monitoring was on their screen or in any other context surveillance is part of our everyday lives
Surveillance for productivity is part of what has become the norm in the workplace
And maybe with good reason nine out of ten employees waste time during the workday. They focus on other things
There may be good reasons why we want to be able to find better ways to monitor whether somebody is paying attention
Or they're doing something different
The newest way to monitor attention is through a device like this one
These are ear pods that are launching later this year. These ear pods much like the video you watched earlier
Are ear pods that can pick up brainwave activity and tell whether or not a person is paying attention or their mind is wandering
Okay, well you might think fine
But even if we can tell whether a person is paying attention or their mind is wondering you can't tell what they're paying attention to
You would be wrong
Turns out that you can not only tell what whether a person is paying attention or their mind is wandering
But you can discriminate between the kinds of things that they're paying attention to whether they're doing something like central tasks like programming
peripheral tasks like writing documentation or
unrelated tasks like surfing social media or online browsing
When you combine brainwave activity together with other forms of software and surveillance technology
The power becomes quite precise. So what do we do with this?
What do we do with technology that enables us to monitor brainwave activity for attention?
Do we embrace it? Do we resist it?
I believe that there is a pathway forward with such technology
But it's putting it in the hands of employees enabling them to use it for themselves as a choice
Whether or not they want to focus whether or not they want the technology in order to improve their own performance
but not using it as a measure of their brain metrics to decide whether to fire them hire them or to watch for their
lagging cognitive decline over time and using it as a way to discriminate against them
We might soon even use the technology to help people wake back up
This is a haptic scarf that MIT Media Lab has developed which uses brainwave technology in a responsive way to give a person a little buzz
Literally when their mind starts to wander to help them refocus and hone their attention
There's another pathway forward with this technology, which I find to actually be quite exciting and something that I think companies should be
experimenting with and that is the use of the technology to make the workplace a more responsive workplace to the individual worker
We've all heard the whole idea that robots are coming for our jobs that there will be no jobs left for humans with generative AI
I think we have good reason to wonder how we're going to integrate that in ways that keep us relevant and challenged and important
In the workplace, but there's a different pathway forward, which is a responsive workplace
One where humans and robots and AI work seamlessly together in order to optimize a better and healthier workplace
In one experiment Penn State researchers were able to show that by monitoring brainwave activity with AI in a factory setting
the robot could sense stress levels in the individual and change the speed with which they were giving tasks to the human
Calibrating it so that rather than suffering from cognitive overload
It would bring it to levels of cognitive load
This idea of cognitive ergonomics is what I think is the future of the healthier workplace a place that adapts to our abilities
slows down when we need to slow down and helps us to reset so that we don't suffer from endless cycles of stress
In fact, Microsoft recently did a study on employees during the pandemic
Using brainwave activity they were able to discover a couple of interesting insights
One is Zoom-based or other video-based meetings are more tiring for our brains than in-person conversations
And this is because of misaligned gaze because of also the way we've scheduled it
People do back-to-back meetings where you have five minute breaks in between
They also discovered something else that's quite interesting, which is that the different backgrounds for each person is also more stressful for the brain
So they introduced together mode, which has the same shared background for each of the people who are on the screen
Which brings down stress levels all responsive to brainwave activity
These are innovations that can make our lives better
So what's the pathway forward?
In some ways and in some contexts, surveillance of the human brain can be powerful, helpful, useful, transform the workplace and make our lives better
It also has a dystopian possibility of being used to exploit and bring to the surface our most secret self
It threatens fundamentally what our own self-identity is in some ways
And threatens to become a tool of oppression
But we can make a choice, we can make a choice to use it well
We can make a choice to have it be something that empowers individuals that helps them gain insights into their own mental health and well-being
Improves their own productivity and wellness
And sets them on a pathway where like quantifying your heart rate or other kinds of health, it can be something that unlocks potential for humanity
We can't decode speech and we may never decode full thoughts from the brain using simple wearable devices
But that doesn't mean that there isn't a lot we can already decode
There isn't a lot that we will not be able to decode in the coming days
As AI becomes more powerful, as the sensors become more powerful, more and more of what's in the brain will become transparent
I believe we have to start by recognizing a right to cognitive liberty
This is a right to self-determination over our brains and mental experiences
It requires that we update existing international human rights like freedom of thoughts, mental privacy, and self-determination over our own mental experiences
But that's not enough
We have to do more and corporations have to adopt best practices for the implementation of this technology
That requires being transparent about what data is being collected and for what purposes
Focusing on positive uses for employees to improve their workplace productivity, increase safety, and decrease the burdens on individuals
We also have to be mindful of the changing landscape of biometric laws as this information becomes part of the workplace environment
And decide to move forward in a way that is best for humanity using the technologies and ways that enable us on a pathway forward rather than a process
I think that's a possibility we can still choose. I hope it's one that you'll join me in choosing
I was monitoring all of your brainwaves and I could tell that you are all engaged though most of you were scared out of your socks
Is there any possibility, one of the things that's interesting, is there any possibility that this technology could work while not actually touching your skin?
Right now you have to make a choice to put on a headset or a hat or something in your ears
Is it possible that the weft could have it in the ceiling?
No, not for brainwave technology, but it is possible to disrupt brainwaves remotely
So if you've heard of Havana syndrome, Havana syndrome is a belief that people have suffered from the leading theory is that it's targeted microwave activity at brains to disrupt brainwave activity
There's no proof of it yet, but there's at least a couple dozen cases where there isn't a good explanation for why the individual suffered from disruption of mental abilities
And there's certainly a lot of investment in trying to figure out whether you could target the brain remotely
It's much more difficult to figure out how you could read the brain remotely
Let's get to that because I think it's one of the most important and crucial questions about how this develops
And by the way, raise your hands, I'm just going to ask this question and then we'll move to the audience
You talked at the end, at the beginning you said you won't be able to read complex thoughts
It seems as though we can understand emotions, there's some way you can recreate some images inside your head
Explain where we'll be in one year, where we'll be in five years, and where you would estimate would be in ten years in the complexity of thought and emotional understanding that you can have from sophisticated brainwave readers
So, you know, I am a futurist, I'm not a perfect predictor of the future, but I'll give you my one year five year tenure
So, focusing in the world of wearable technology as opposed to implanted technology
And I do believe that within many of our lifetimes we'll see healthy people using implanted brain technology as well
Then we can decode complex thought, but wearable brain technology, I think in one year we will be largely where we are now but with much better form factor technology
So many companies are launching these earbuds and headphones this year that have sensors that are built in
One of the things that has limited the widespread adoption of the technology until now has been that you have to wear something like a crosser forehead, most of us aren't going to do that
But when it's the same device that you're using to take calls from and also to listen to music from that also is picking up brainwave activity, it's integrated into your everyday life
Because of that, the decoding will largely be in the same place a year from now, but as healthy people in a widespread way start to have their brainwave data collected
These sites that we can gain through pattern recognition will exponentially increase and pretty quickly
So five years from now what we can actually decode will be massively increased from where we are today simply because we'll have a much greater data set from which we can actually create those correlations
Again, that's frightening but promising because think about most of neurological disease and suffering are those disruptions of brain activity which we'll start to be able to pick up
Ten years from now, even wearable technology I don't think is going to decode complex thoughts, but it is going to decode a lot more
And already gamers have figured out for example, a person is wearing a headset, how to prime a person through their brainwave activity to be able to decode their pin number and their home address
So you don't have to have your full complex thought decoded to reveal your thoughts, right? What we think thought is
And how do you decode somebody's pin number? You flash a series of numbers and see how their brain reacts to them?
So you have recognition memory signals that are pre-conscious and subconscious and this is part of why it's been used for example by governments to interrogate criminals
Do you recognize this potential co-conspirator? Do you recognize this murder weapon?
Those pre-conscious signals like what we call the P300 wave or the N400 wave, these are before you even consciously process information so you could prime it with a number and then see if a person recognizes it
And you can do it without them realizing that that's what you're doing
So will all of our passwords be cracked first by this or quantum computing? Hard to tell
I think I'm moving passwords pretty quickly
This is actually really good for passwords, neural signatures are unique, we can use it as a biometric for passwords
Oh wonderful, right here in the front
Oh and by the way, we need to get you a microphone that folks watching so hold on, there we go
This is amazing stuff
And there is a ton of need for government rule setting in this, not to be pessimistic on it but having worked in government and seeing the number of things that government needs to try and get ahead of
I am pessimistic that government is going to be on this
If you were, for instance the World Economic Forum and you were speaking to leaders from across the globe right now, what would your advice be to them in terms of how to not f this up as this continues to go past?
Thank you, it's an important question
So first of all, I think it's almost impossible to keep up with any kind of regulation with the rate at which the technology is advancing
This title, The Battle for Your Brain, refers to the book that I've written on the same topic
And in it I propose this right to cognitive liberty as a default starting place
That gives I think all of us a starting place for how to think about it, changing the default rules to give people a right to self-determination over their brains and mental experiences
We don't have to wait for human rights to be updated to operate as if we have cognitive liberty
And the way we do that is by recognizing if we start by saying people have a right to freedom of thought, a right to self-determination over their brain and mental experiences, and a right to mental privacy
Then when you're in the workplace and you're deciding to monitor, you're going to monitor just for fatigue levels even though you could capture and figure out, oh this person has amorous feelings
You're going to do data minimization and best practices that respect the autonomy of the individual
You're not going to try to disrupt their thought patterns in order to make them more productive, recognizing they have a right to freedom of thought
And so I think it's about operating as if we have those set of freedoms and liberty in every way that it's rolled out in society
I'm speaking as a CEO, I'm sure all CEOs will use it completely responsibly
The woman in blue in the front here
Hi, I'm Julie, I'm one of the world's first online harms regulator out of Australia
And this was mind blowing, but you might have known that
But I do think this is an issue where we can't leave companies to their own devices on these devices
And there are principles like safety by design and privacy by design that are largely voluntary
But we just can't be sure unless there are standards and regulations that these guard rails are going to be erected
Because we're still in the era of moving fast and breaking things
And I loved that you had the positive use cases and I was just thinking with the motor neurons and people who are disabled
And can wear haptic suits and you could have sensation that you've never had
But I also work with women who experience technology facilitated abuse as a form of course of control
And most of that is low tech, it's techs, it's love bombings, it's gaslighting
Think of a perpetrator, got a hold of, can really coerce the brain
So I do hope that you are calling for governments to think ahead and be anticipatory
And start engaging, not to stop innovation but to be responsible and ethical
And I don't know that we can rely on companies in this distributed world
I wholeheartedly agree, right? So I'm giving you the positive use cases because what I don't want the reaction to be is let's ban this
But I do think that the most important thing we can do is to start with a different set of default rules
And that default rule is the right to cognitive liberty is a right of individuals, is a fundamental right to what it means to be human
And that as a starting place for the implementation of the technology is very different than how we've thought about in the other technology
I believe that the brain is so fundamental to our sense of self and the freedom of thought is so fundamental to what it means to be able to flourish as a human being
That unless we start with the default rule, it really could become the most oppressive technology that we've ever unleashed
I don't want that because I also think it can be the most empowering technology that we've ever realized if we do it right
But it's a call to action, it's a call to do it right now by adopting a universal right to cognitive liberty
Alright, well we are out of time so everybody should go to dinner, go to the bar, fight for your right to cognitive liberty
That's a wrap, thank you to Anita Farahani, that was fabulous, thank you so much, literally mind blowing