The final post on this statement blog has arrived. By clicking the link below, you can read the my statement paper that finishes of this series of blog posts.
New technologies seem to be increasingly aimed at everyday life. Nowadays, no one seems to think twice when posting every detail of their private life on Facebook or Twitter. Brain imaging techniques, like fNIRS, take it a step further. Combine this with an increasing aggregation of our information in the cloud, and a new privacy concern is born.
Hidden terrorism, you’re brain might be the target
The American security agency NSA recently became famous for all the wrong reasons. In name of securing the lives of countless Americans, they decided that every citizen should give their privacy in return.
Billions of mails, countless phone calls and at least 75 % of all American internet traffic gets logged and scanned to find possible threats. But it doesn’t stop there, other nationalities are also systematically spied on. The European bank transfer system (SWIFT) is one of the latest examples.
Of course everyone has his own sense of privacy.
Evidence of this difference in opinion became painfully clear when former NSA-boss Hayden unleashed this quote:
If you look at the commentary on this, folks from the so-called left are a bit uneasy.
I certainly am a bit uneasy, you might not be. However, the real question is: would you also feel comfortable sending your “brain data” over the internet? Prying eyes are certainly eager to take a peek at it.
Too far-fetched? Lets take a tour…
Sir, please follow me for a brain scan
No matter how you look at it, losing your online privacy is less of a concern than getting your thoughts stolen. Protecting yourself against it is also more difficult, if not impossible. While switching off your computer is unpleasant, doing the same with your brain might be a bit more painful.
Brain scanning has countless applications. Amongst those the brain-computer interface (or BCI), might be the most thrilling. It is, basically, a translator that converts your brain activity into digital data. Examples of the applications are: thought control of devices, work environments that adapt to your alertness or stress level and person identification.
A brain scan as identification method for the authorities would be a step forward in securely identifying persons. Identity theft would get harder, but at the cost of your privacy. Who knows, maybe we’ll even use it as a lie detector. Standing in line at the airport? Be prepared to get your mind read.
Although the technology isn’t yet able to offer all these possibilities, it seems that it’s only a matter of time until it does. When that time comes security should be of the utmost importance. Before I’m storing my brain data in the cloud, a lot need to change. Right now, the mere thought makes me nervous.
How do you see the future? How much of your personal data are you willing to upload?
Brain imaging has come a long way since its earliest techniques. Already in 1918 a technique called ventriculography was invented. This technique consisted of injecting filtered air into the ventricles, the hollow cavities inside the brain, and included a high risk for the patient. Seeing that it did provide a lot of useful surgical information, new techniques were started to be developed.
Non-invasive brain imaging
After a few decades of invasive techniques, computed tomography (CT) came around the bend. This technology utilizes X-rays and thus didn’t involve invading the patients body, making the procedure much safer and easier. Nowadays this technology is still used, but has to share its place at the top with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Functional brain imaging
MRI introduced the possibility to not only visualize the anatomical structure, but also show what is going on inside the brain. Functional MRI (fMRI) allows to see the brain activity by monitoring the local blood flow. Active neurons (nerve cells) consume more energy and thus need more nutrients and oxygen than unactive cells. The brain responds to this increased energy need by sending more oxygenated blood to the area, which in turn can then be picked up by the powerful magnet in the scanner.
Although fMRI scanners allow for very detailed scans, two of their biggest shortcomings are the price and size of the machines. Several new technologies have since been developed, which try to offer the same level of detail while maintaining a smaller form factor.
One of those relatively new techniques is called functional near-infrared spectroscopy or fNIRS in short.
Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS)
Based on the same underlying principle as the MRI scanner, fNIRS also tries to pinpoint brain activity based on measurements of the blood flow inside the brain. Instead of using a magnet, it relies on the difference in absorption of near-infrared light by oxygenated and deoxygenated haemoglobin.
fNIRS is gaining more and more popularity as it is proving to be a worthy contender of MRI, while being portable at the same time. For my thesis as an industrial engineer in electronics, I’m trying to improve this technology by making the system smaller. The end goal is a wearable design, which would open the field of brain imaging to a lot of new applications both in research and at home.
Follow my blog to get a sneak peek into this exciting field and the possible ramifications on your everyday life.