Social and Legal Concerns as America Expands into the Brain-Computer Interface

Daniel Baum, MJLST Staffer

A great deal of science and technology has been emerging in the field of the brain-computer interface, the connection between the human brain and machines. In addition to forming effective prosthetics and helping doctors repair brain damages, technology in the brain-computer interface has recently allowed a man to operate a prosthetic hand and an electric wheelchair with his mind using only a microelectrode array surgically implanted into his arm’s nerve fibers. The professor who developed the implant also experimented on himself, and made himself able to see in the dark: with an implant into the median nerve of his wrist, he could use the electric feedback from an ultrasonic range-finding sensor mounted on his hat to guide himself around a room blindfolded. Since this technology is still in its experimental stages, American law does not have much to say about human enhancements. Already, dangerous medical devices can lead to confusing and unfair trials, and it’s easy to imagine courtrooms getting even more confusing and unfair as medical devices progress into the brain-computer interface. This technology is close enough that the implementation of legal changes now could help this emerging technology develop in ways that will balance minimizing harm with utilizing its enormous potential to make people better.

Current laws impose no affirmative duty on manufacturers to allow pacemaker users access to their own data, and the top five manufacturers do not allow patients to access the data produced by their own pacemakers at all. As we begin to view machines as extensions of ourselves, in order to maintain our personal autonomy, we will need to be able to control who accesses the data we produce. This calls for an already necessary legal change: a right to access and control access to the data generated by objects that are effectively extensions of ourselves.

As this technology moves from healing disabled humans to giving normal people supernormal powers, its use will become much more widely pursued—“the disabled may prove more abled; we may all want their prostheses.” If other job applicants are capable of so much more because of their built-in brain-computer interface technology, employers may discriminate against natural, unenhanced humans. To protect people who cannot or who choose not to install machinery in the brain-computer interface, for financial, medical, ethical, religious, or any reasons, an independent statutory scheme with the purpose of eliminating discrimination both for and against individuals with brain-computer interface devices would not disturb the currently established disability protocols in the Americans with Disabilities Act and could be amended to account for each new form of machinery.

Another frightening concern arises once these enhancements become capable of connecting to the internet: if someone hacks into somebody else’s machinery and makes that person damage something or someone, who will be criminally and civilly liable for the damage? Since American law does not have much to say about human enhancements, no defense has been defined for the person who was hacked into and forced to cause harm. The person whose body actually committed the act could try pleading the affirmative defense of duress—that is, the defendant was compelled to commit the crime against his or her will or judgment—but the U.S. Supreme Court held in 2014 in Rosemond v. United States that “circumstances that traditionally would support a necessity or duress defense” require proof that the defendant “could have walked away.” The hacker took away the defendant’s control of his or her own body, making it impossible for the defendant to have walked away. To solve this problem, states that recognize the defense of insanity could amend their statutes to allow defendants who were mentally unable to control their own bodies due to hacking to plead the affirmative defense of insanity. States that conform to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure would then order the defendant to be mentally examined by an expert who could determine and tell the court to what extent the defendant was in control of his or her own mind and body at the time of the crime. The defendant could them implead the hacker to shift the liability for committing the crime. However, since the insanity defense is a mental health defense and brain-computer interface devices aren’t necessarily related to mental health, states may want to define a new affirmative defense for being hacked into that follows a similar procedure but that better fits the situation and that doesn’t carry the stigma of mental disorder.

New machinery in the brain-computer interface is exciting and will allow us both to heal physical and mental damages and to develop supernormal powers. Legal changes now could help this emerging technology develop in ways that will balance minimizing harms like invasions of privacy, discrimination, and hacking with utilizing its enormous potential to make people better.