To the CitiZENs of the Future Office: ‘It Is All in Your Mind’

By Krishnan Thyagarajan

Image courtesy of Phil Whitehouse on Flickr
Societal material progress has been based on the ability of humans to improve their productivity and efficiency with the aid of technological innovations. Take for example, the steam engine, the machine that kick-started the first industrial revolution in the 1700s. This invention rapidly diffused into our daily lives, by affecting the transportation, textile, infrastructure and agriculture industries and also gave impetus to improve other societal factors like sanitation, labor laws and housing. Till date, we’ve experienced two more such revolutions – the second (energy revolution in the 1800s) and the third (telecommunication and electronics revolution in the 1900s) – and are currently in the midst of the fourth (digital revolution in the 2000s). There is no doubt that such tectonic shifts in the way our society functions can have a significant collateral of creative destruction (for example technological advancements like energy production from fossil fuels at the cost of the environment) whose ramifications can be felt for a long time. I would like to recall the three laws1 by the famous science writer and futurist Arthur Clarke to recalibrate our perspective on such technological changes and their impact on society, and if I may, add a corollary to the third.
  1. Law 1: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. Law 2: The only way of discovering the limits of what is possible is to venture a little way past that into the impossible.
  3. Law 3: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  
    1. Corollary: Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from reality
What all the four technological revolutions have in common are innovations that have helped improve and optimize human performance and efficiency. The current revolution is particularly interesting since its advances are helping redefine what it means to be human. Consider the fact that on the one hand, machines are being given anthropocentric qualities like empathy, compassion and forgiveness, and on the other, we are augmenting human capabilities to perform tirelessly like machines. Clarke-inspired, we can ask how is this impacting our relationships with machines and with each other? What are we in the midst of now, that was perhaps inconceivable a few decades ago? Where are we heading to next and what are the limits of such innovations? What social and ethical issues do we need to be concerned about? I’d like to discuss this in the context of where we spend a large part of our day – at the office.

Image courtesy of Krishnan Thyagarajan
Since its conception, the office has evolved both in the style of interaction among people and the modalities used for the interaction, so much so that the concept of the office as most people know it from the early 1900s, may change for those in the 2100s (see Figure 1). With open offices, we moved to cubicles, to glass and concrete, then to wellness-centered and ergonomics-inspired co-working. Although a finite fraction of the workforce has started to work remotely (see ‘Where does the technology stand today?’), we are seeing a greater merger between the work-home environment that is being assisted by technologies that the last two revolutions have enabled. These include real time high-definition videos and big data, good visualization tools and content being streamed across the high-bandwidth information highways – all of which need more and more human-machine interaction to enable greater human-human interactions! Think also of social media and you’ll know what I mean. Rather than meeting and discussing face-to-face, people keep in touch and up to date via instant messaging and social networking platforms. With these capabilities, the future holds even more intriguing promise by giving greater access to a wider variety of human-human and human-machine interactions. If someone had stated several decades ago, that they will be able to live-stream high-quality video content showing geographically-separated colleagues who are part of the same meeting, it might have been categorized in the realm of science fiction. But there were those who sensed optimism in Clarke’s first law and pushed ahead.

Imagine being a textile designer and being able to instantly feel the texture of a fabric being made at a different location, or being a perfumer and getting to pin down a combination of smells that gives the ideal scent, directly from your brain. Let us take the latter and parse it through Clarke’s lenses.
  1. Can humans conceive of a device that is capable of capturing smells that I smell inside my head? In the past, I would have been skeptical, but so would people have been about technologies like Optogenetics. Current advances in electromagnetic tools have inspired studies to create artificial smells2 and although we are quite a distance away from such a device, given the massive improvements in computation, machine learning, neuroscience, physics and engineering – it is not inconceivable in the future. 
  2. What world would this open up to us? Alain De Botton, a Swiss-born British philosopher, has correctly pointed out – “Most of our childhood is stored not in photos, but in certain biscuits, lights of day, smells, textures of carpet”3. Being able to recreate the smells of nostalgia would give us unprecedented access to capturing qualia and maybe even sharing it? Creativity is not the constraint of what we can dream of, but rather, our sense of what may tear at the fabric of society. This immense capacity to tweak perception, raises many questions on the ethics of such devices. Can I record your memories? Can I corrupt them? Can I implant a false memory, as has been recently demonstrated4?
  3. Isn’t the device capable of doing so, pure magic? The device picks up and isolates signals of smell from my brain, filters out those that I like and breaks those down into component smells that I need to mix to get that seductive eau de cologne. But then, isn’t this device also messing with your sense of reality? AR/VR devices that give a realistic experience including the sense of smell might make it tough to decipher what is real and what is virtual? Making a reference to a famous Taoist story – are you the person dreaming you are a butterfly when asleep or are you a butterfly dreaming of being a person when awake?5 
Once such brain interface technologies are available, they have an immense potential to assist us in many of our day-to-day activities, one of which is work. However, such technologies also bring to light, a lot of key ethical issues related to the technology. 

Where does technology stand today?

Until recently, working from home was considered a luxury, but it has now become a necessity enforced on a global scale with the sudden pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This transition brings new realities of working in isolation and there are attempts to make it more realistic and efficient. Companies and academicians are picking on the cues and are accelerating the development of a new generation of devices. Technologies that might become prevalent in the office over the next five decades could include: those that can convert thoughts directly to text6,7, enable collaborative problem solving8 and augmenting the realistic interaction with colleagues by VR9, to begin with. Although these do not seem to raise ethical problems, they may become significant concerns in the future. As a simple example, imagine if they define the new normal where most office-goers work remotely and in order to gain permission to physically enter a building, they are required to constantly upload vital statistics of their health and travel history to the office server. Albeit precautionary, these means would not only be intrusive, but also efface my fundamental rights as a human. Consider the fact that despite not enabling complete privacy, smartphones have become an absolute requirement now, and people care less if they are being tracked. But if the same attitude extends to brain-machine interfaces at work, as the devices become more sophisticated, they can gain greater access to our personal world without our consent.

Ethical conundrum of brain interfaces at work spaces

One can thus see that the future use of brain-interfacing devices even in an office setting is rife with ethical conundrums and is fertile ground for fermenting debate. Previous technologies have not had such a direct impact on what it means to be human, making such wearables in need of additional check posts of validation in the context of societal settings. So, what may be the ethical implications of such brain-interfacing devices becoming regular office supplies? I classify these issues into the “myself,” “me” and “I” categories.

Myself categories: How can such devices manipulate the user?
Image courtesy of Krishnan Thyagarajan
  1. Information exchange: If I were to be plugged into the device, who has access to what information goes into and out of my brain? Is it the firm manufacturing the device? Or is it a higher authority? What will my mind be fed? To what extent can I control the device? Can my personal opinions about certain projects or colleagues at work be extracted from my mind and used to my detriment?
  2. Emotional regulation: Given that our brain is the seat of our emotions, will such devices have regal access to altering my emotions and make me less human? Can my emotional health (e.g. anxiety, tiredness, positive reinforcement) be manipulated to make me work harder? Can my memory be erased and replaced by a different memory?  Will it be the new electronic drug
Me categories: How does the user protect their identity and avoid compromise?
  1. Maintaining moral sense: If such a device can control my emotions, it can also control my sense of judgement about what is morally correct. Can I then be coerced into doing things I would not do otherwise? Who is responsible for actions committed by the user under the influence of such a device? Think of the similar debate surrounding driverless cars.
  2. Privacy protection: Offices are where we work with colleagues, connect with them and reach out to others. Being connected to others risks the exposure of my private thoughts, current state of mind, emotions and anxieties – how will I protect my privacy as an individual with such a device? Can I choose what access rights others have in this mind social network, which might be an interconnected network where users have access to each other’s thoughts?
  3. Internet vulnerability: A connected world is wonderfully ideal, but like with all networks such as smart grids, the internet and human networks, this connectedness also leads to exposure and vulnerability. How can I protect myself from hacking and wrongful manipulation?
I category: Under the human-machine symbiosis, how does one protect the humanness?
  1. Sense of self: If my emotions, thoughts, memories and privacy are all vulnerable to exploitation, can I still retain my sense of self? Who are you dealing with then – is it me or an artificially enforced personality?
At least fifty years from now, the office will not likely be in the form we are currently familiar with. High information content, visualization capabilities, brain-machine interfaces, computing power and data super-ways will shrink spatial distances and temporal differences in forms that allow us to be in the net, rather than on the network with all of our connections. In particular, we need to be cognizant of the power of technology such as brain interfaces that might affect us in subliminal ways and strike at the core of who we are. Such devices are meant to augment human creativity organically, rather than making humans strive for synthetic flawlessness. Although dystopian futures are improbable, they are still plausible. Scientists, engineers, ethicists, social scientists and governments need to cautiously walk the line between freedom of creation and maintaining the richness and diversity of our human society. Technologies should assist us, not dictate us and brain-machine interfaces should be confined to that realm – where we are in control and there is a clear line drawn between the creator and the creation. We would not want to invariably exchange our roles as humans and machines across this dividing line and yet, would still like to push the boundaries of the human creative spirit. For, after all, as George Orwell said, “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection.”10

References
  1. Clarke, A. C. (1973). Profiles of the future: An inquiry into the limits of the possible. Harper & Row.
  2. Holbrook, E. H., Puram, S. V., See, R. B., Tripp, A. G., & Nair, D. G. (2018). Induction of smell through transethmoid electrical stimulation of the olfactory bulb. Int. Forum of Allergy and Rhinology
  3. De Botton, A. (1998). How Proust can change your life, Vintage, 4th printing edition. 
  4. Vetere, G., Tran, L. M., Moberg, S., Steadman, P. E., Restivo, L., Morrison, F. G., Ressler, K. J., Josselyn, S. A., & Frankland, P. W. (2019). Memory formation in the absence of experience. Nature Neuroscience, 22, 933-940 
  5. Mair, V. H. (2000). Wandering on the way. University of Hawaii Press. 
  6. Heff, C. & Schultz, T. (2016). Automatic speech recognition from neural signals: a focused review. Front. Neurosci, 10, 429 
  7. Makin, J. G., Moss, D. A., & E. F. Chang. (2020). Machine translation of cortical activity to text with an encoder-decoder framework. Nat. Neurosci
  8.  Jiang, L., Stocco, A., Losey, D. M., Abernethy, J. A., Prat, C. S., & Rao, R. N. (2019). BrainNet: a multi-person brain-to-brain interface for direct collaboration between brains. Sci. Rep. 9, 6115. 
  9. Putze, F., Vourvopoulos, A., Lecuyer, A., Krusienski, D., Mulle, T., & Herff, C. (2020). Brain-computer interfaces and augmented/virtual reality. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 10, 3389. 
  10. Orwell, G. (1949). Essays on reflections on Gandhi. The Orwell Foundation.
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Dr. Krishnan Thyagarajan is a research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) Inc., a Xerox company located in Palo Alto, California. Trained as a physicist, he obtained his PhD degree from EPFL in Switzerland and pursued postdoctoral work at Caltech in Pasadena on electromagnetic metamaterials. He is the technical PI of several multimillion-dollar projects funded by U.S. Federal Agencies in the area of neurotechnology, looking at brain-interfaces for restoration and augmentation of human capabilities. His research interests lie in the domains of neuroscience and quantum science, with an aim of taking lab science to technologies for the market. A deep-seated curiosity to understand and address ethical and philosophical conundrums that these domains raise, drives him to engage with scientists from a variety of fields and strive for effective science communication.


Want to cite this post?

Thyagarajan, K. (2020). To the CitiZENs of the Future Office: ‘It Is All in Your Mind’. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2020/05/to-citizens-of-future-office-it-is-all.html

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