Would You Let Facebook Plug into Your Brain? A Design Fiction Experience
“To me the brain is the one safe place for freedom of thought, of fantasies, and for dissent. We’re getting close to crossing the final frontier of privacy in the absence of any protections whatsoever.”
- Nita Farahany, professor of neuro-ethics at Duke University
Brain-computer interface (BCI) is a technology that translates brain signals into computer commands, allowing humans to interact with computers using only their brains. If this sounds like science fiction, be assured that it’s not. BCI is a technology that will see widespread adoption in our lifetime, blurring the lines between organic and artificial intelligence and transforming our very conception of the self.
BCI technology has been under development in laboratory settings for fifteen years. Now, it’s being primed for mass-market commercialization by the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Musks’ Neuralink, whose BCI implants aim to merge human brains with artificial intelligence, anticipates beginning human trials this year. Facebook is developing BCI implants that allow people to compose messages and interact with digital platforms using their brains; these implants are already being placed inside the heads of volunteers.
Facebook is also developing the ability to read brain activity from outside of your head. Imagine living in a world where anti-privacy platforms like Facebook can read your thoughts without the aid of surgical implants. “We take privacy very seriously,” says Mark Chevillet, the head of Facebook’s mind-reading projects. Oh, good. That’s super-duper reassuring, Mark.
To inspire conversation on this subject, I created Meldr, a social media platform for the BCI age. Meldr is a design fiction experience intended to provoke deeper questions about the use of BCI technology in our day-to-day lives. In a world where our brains are networked with our devices, how will we safeguard the security and integrity of our cognitive processes? How will we choose what parts of ourselves to share with others? Who will own our cognitive data? Who is a product like Meldr truly serving?
I’ll share some thoughts on these questions and more in the remainder of this piece, but first, I invite you to experience Meldr at the link below. The experience will be most realistic on a mobile device, but your computer will work as well. I hope you enjoy it and also are a little bit freaked out.
If you have one of these phones, then use the corresponding link:
Otherwise, use this link to experience Meldr on your computer:
Some comments on Meldr and on brain networking generally
Right off the bat, I wanted Meldr to feel both familiar and a bit unsettling, like the beginning of many good sci-fi novels. This familiar-looking screen provides the user a sort of illusion of control; you can choose between two sign-in options, but both options involve sacrificing control to a corporate mediator. What do Apple or Nerualink stand to gain from you tapping their button? Who do you trust more, and why?
This screen introduces the user to what it might feel like to realize that the network to which you are about to connect your brain may be unstable or otherwise compromised. What would be the implications on the security and integrity of your memories? Your thought patterns and beliefs? Better go with AppleMind.
I used this screen to explore some of the administrative questions that arise when you decide to connect your brain to a computer. Maybe the computer would best understand the human brain as a file system, where memories are indexed into various folders with various permission sets. This screen also prompts the user to consider the different types of memories contained in their heads. What types of memories would you feel comfortable sharing with an app? With other people? How much control would you want over the classification and permission-ing of your memories? Lastly: what is “your Cognilink app?” I wanted to introduce another entity aside from Apple, Neuralink, and Meldr and then to never give the user any more information about that entity, mirroring the opacity of many real-life application architectures.
Just a quick little design challenge in-and-of-itself: how does two-factor authentication work with BCI?
Great. Another long Terms and Conditions screen. In real life, you’re definitely going to click “I agree” without reading a single word. I wanted to illustrate how dangerous a typical, mundane user behavior can be when we’re working with a technology as intimate and powerful as BCI. I also used this screen to flesh out the narrative a bit and to name some of the potential hazards of this technology. This one may be a bit too on-the-nose.
Woohoo, we’re finally in! This screen started with the question “what types of interactions could two or more minds have when networked together?” There are familiar social-media-inspired category distinctions: one-on-one vs group chat, free experiences vs paid, public events vs private. But I also wanted to include some experiences whose function might be less obvious. What types of jobs could be performed via a mind-to-mind connection? What types of research might Meldr be conducting on its users? And, of course, what would brain sex be like?
This screen invites the user to consider what it might feel like for an app to extract specific pieces of information from their mind. Is this an uncomfortable experience? Do they trust it? How can they be assured that the app is only collecting contact information, and not scanning other memory-information?
The penultimate screen invites users to consider what the actual experience of a Meld would be like. Does your conscious experience of your surroundings persist, or fade away? Is the Meld a purely auditory experience, or does it involve more of your senses? Does it transcend sense altogether? How do you remain in control of your experience throughout the Meld? What is the user interface like and how do you interact with it? I wanted this prototype to provoke questions like these without trying to answer them. In leaving this experience open-ended, I hope that people will ruminate on the possibilities and come up with more interesting answers that I’m able to pose myself.