When you develop a device that measures brain activity, people tend to ask a lot of questions. They want to know, for instance, what scalp sensors can discern about one’s thoughts, how companies plan to protect this most-personal data, and whether neurotechnology can really improve everyday life.
These questions, both practical and profound, flow from an intuition that there’s something unique about tech that records from the brain—a sense that, even if new devices can’t exactly read your mind, they may nonetheless capture a special kind of data. Neurable shares this intuition and, as a pioneer in the field of consumer neurotechnology, is committed to creating products that respect the specialness of brains and their owners.
Learning from the Past
In some ways, new neurotechnologies may be less intrusive than devices we already own. After all, smartphone apps can make predictions about your personality, based purely on your online activity. Of course, this precedent may not be terribly comforting.
In recent years, we’ve learned that apps can collect a frightening amount of data about users, often without explicit permission to do so. Additionally, developers often design programs in ways that maximize their addictiveness, rather than their usefulness. While there now exists growing pushback against such practices, these important conversations have arrived only after years of decisions that fail to prioritize end users. Relatively young, the field of consumer neurotechnology can and should hold itself to a higher standard.
In addition to learning from the mistakes of other industries, we can learn from our customers, our competitors, and researchers in the fields of data privacy and ethics. Though no one can anticipate every challenge that will accompany the development of new tech, we know that industries are better equipped to navigate these challenges when diverse voices are included in the conversation. As such, in the coming years it will be critical to engage in open, ongoing dialogue about the role of neurotechnology in our lives.
A Model for the Future
On top of inventing actual devices, neurotech leaders have an opportunity and responsibility to invent standards of ethical practice for the industry. Here, a great deal can be learned from research in neuroethics, a field devoted to understanding how brain tech might affect people and society.
For example, a leading neuroethics group recently published recommendations on responsible innovation in neurotechnology. While some of these recommendations apply to future devices, they also include practical tips that can be implemented now. The group states, for instance, that companies should not collect brain data unless users actively volunteer to share this information.
They also stress that users have a right to understand how a product interacts with their brain, and that companies must take steps to counteract bias during product development.
These guidelines are a great start. Now, it’s up to companies like Neurable to apply these principles and, drawing from real world experience, expand upon them. We have found, for example, that one of the best ways to protect the rights of users is to enhance their knowledge of the field. When consumers have a firm understanding of technology, they are empowered to make informed decisions about how they engage with it, and to spot questionable industry practices. As such, we believe that consumer education should be a pillar of any neuroethics initiative.
While we think that users should be able to do what they want with their data and devices, we also think that companies should take strides to protect their customers from potential privacy violations. So, as a matter of policy, we will never sell your data. Though we can’t force everyone in the industry to adopt the same policy, we can encourage good behavior by modeling it.
Put simply, we want to develop technology that improves everyday life. That means making decisions that put our users first. In doing so, we will contribute to the development of high ethical standards that guide our industry for years to come.