Neurocapitalism: surveillance of the mind

Photo by Moritz Kindler on Unsplash


Gertrude, the pig, has a computer implanted in her brain courtesy of Elon Musk’s Neuralink, a company that designs neural interfaces.

Facebook is developing an algorithm that will translate brain activity into words. No brain implants required just a cap worn on the head.

These neural interfaces will lead to new and unimaginable applications where brains and computers are intimately connected: brains will ‘talk’ directly to computers and computers will be able to influence brain activity.

Gertrude’s implant monitors her brainwaves and, according to Musk, is a step towards alleviating mental disorders, restoring body function to people who are paralysed and, eventually, working intimately and cooperatively with artificial intelligence.

A broader view of these potential technologies was given in the UK’s national science institute, the Royal Society, in a report from 2019, “iHuman perspective: Neural interfaces”. This report details the current and future applications of neural interfaces.

Current ones that they identify include:

  • Brain implants to treat Parkinson’s disease and tremor;
  • Electrical foot stimulators to aid stroke recovery;
  • Cochlear implants to convey sounds to people with hearing loss;
  • Brain computer interfaces, typically EEG (electroencephalography) headsets, used by gamers to control digital objects;
  • Transcranial stimulation used to boost memory or concentration.

 And in the future we might expect to see these:

  • ‘Typing by brain’ and use of a ‘mental mouse’ to control computers and devices;
  • Direct brain-to-brain communication, whether simple impulses or complex thoughts;
  • Wider medical applications, such as for Alzheimer’s Disease and mental health conditions;
  • Monitoring of brain activity to support health, safety and security;
  • Augmentation of human memory, concentration and learning.
As assistive technologies these new developments have the potential to be life-changing for those who have difficulties, either physical or neurological, in coping with everyday life. If technology can help the paralysed walk and the manic depressive feel better about themselves, who would argue that this should not go ahead?

Imagine how much more productive and communicative the late Stephen Hawking could have been if he could have thought words into his computer and voice synthesiser rather than laboriously picking out individual letters with small eye or muscle movements.

Musk’s idea of more intimately working with AI seems a little more problematic. Imagine farming out a problem to an AI and then having the solution simply pop up in your brain with no idea or understanding of how that solution was arrived at. You might think that it’s not much different to using a pocket calculator but, personally, I’m not sure that I’d be comfortable with the idea.

But along with enthusiasm for the clear improvements in the life of many people with physical or mental impairments, must go worry of misuse.

What is to stop the likes of Facebook, Google and the other organisations who are tracking your activity, both physically and over the internet, from seeing this as yet another opportunity to monitor you or manipulate you.

These organisations already know a vast amount about you, your movements, your purchases, what you read and what you like. This so-called Surveillance Capitalism profits from building a profile and using that to target you with things you might want to read, things to buy and people to vote for.

How much more will they know about you if you are sporting a brain implant? We have lost much of our privacy to the internet giants but now we have the possibility of opening up our innermost thoughts and feelings. Think of the marketing opportunities that would go with being able to read your true feelings when presented with a particular product, or being able to know when you were hungry, feeling bored, or needed a holiday!

Clearly, ethical issues are raised by the idea of an outside agent interfering with our innermost thoughts and feelings.

Rafael Yuste, a neurobiologist from the University of Columbia, New York, wrote in Nature (as lead author) about four ethical concerns that needed addressing as a priority:

Privacy and consent

Vast amounts of data are currently collected about individuals but the default position is generally to be able to opt out of your data being collected. The authors recommend that with neural data the default option should be to opt in. So, the individual should have to actively request that their data is collected and/or processed. Furthermore, they advocate the ban on the sale of neural data (similar to the way the sale of human organs is banned, for example, in the US).

Agency and identity

If people are treated through the use of direct brain stimulation, this could affect the way they behave. When does this behaviour become less the natural behaviour of the individual and more the behaviour induced by the technology. With the addition of, for example, AI into the mix, it may be difficult, even for individuals, to know which behaviours are theirs and which the machine’s.


The US military is already conducting research into the augmentation of its personnel. Whether this be physical augmentation of those in the battlefield, or mental improvement of intelligence operators. It is unlikely that these technologies could be completely banned, so some international agreement on the types of technology and the levels to which it is used need to be worked out.


This already exists within algorithmic decision making and there needs to be active measures to ensure that this does not continue in the area of neural data particularly when it comes to the treatment of already disadvantaged groups.

Neurotechnology is here already and will become more prevalent. Whether it evolves into the powerful technology that Elon Musk predicts, or something different, it is something that society will have to cope with.

Arguably, the law was not prepared for the digital revolution that has taken the world by storm over the last decades. So it is important that we listen to people like Rafael Yuste and his colleagues in order that we are prepared for what is coming this time.

Further reading

Facebook details its plans for a brain-computer interface

Nicole Lee, Engadget, April 19, 2017

Elon Musk’s Neuralink is neuroscience theater

Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review, August 30, 2020


La neurotecnología ya lee cerebros: protejamos nuestros pensamientos

Rafael Yuste, El País, 16 August 2020

Brain-reading tech is coming. The law is not ready to protect us.

In the era of neurocapitalism, your brain needs new rights.

Sigal Samuel, Vox, Dec 20, 2019

iHuman: blurring lines between mind and machine

The Royal Society, September 2019

Four ethical priorities for neurotechnologies and AI

Rafael Yuste, et al. Nature, 08 November 2017