In the sci-fi movie Avatar, humans use a brain-computer interface (BCI) to control artificial avatars who live on a planetary body beyond earth. Futuristic BCI-based societies are also depicted in movies like Pacific Rim and Ready Player One. But, the connection between the brain (of humans and animals) and machines (including computers and smartphones) is no longer just fiction; it has entered daily life.
On April 15, 2022, the Berggruen Research Center at Peking University held its first “Brain-Computer Interface and Future Society” Workshop. The workshop was chaired by Chen Haidan, a 2021-2022 Berggruen Fellow and tenured associate professor at the School of Health Humanities, Peking University, and invited twelve experts from multidisciplinary fields including academia, business, and art to meet to discuss BCI technology’s implications for future society. It consisted of three parts: keynote presentations, the sharing of artworks, and a brainstorming session.
As one of the keynote presentations, BCI expert Professor Gao Xiaorong of Tsinghua University reviewed common archetypes of BCI and put forward a generalized evolutionary model. The model includes the interface, interaction, and intelligence that are all currently on an evolutionary path. Professor Gao also highlighted the challenges, opportunities, and prospects for the development of new BCI technologies. The challenges and opportunities mainly involve issues such as BCI capacity, human enhancement, and coordination between BCI and artificial intelligence (AI). In the future, AI will significantly improve BCI’s computing functions. At the same time, BCI will be able to enhance AI’s capabilities, thus achieving coordinated operations between AI and humans. We can freely imagine such applications in the future, but all of them involve ethical issues.
Zhu Rui, an Eminent Scholar and Distinguished Professor at the School of Philosophy at Renmin University of China, delivered a report entitled “Possibilities and Limitations of BCI: From the Perspectives of Anomalous Monism and the Behavioral Neuroscience Model.” Based on research literature on BCI from the Laboratory of Dr. Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University, Professor Zhu noted that compared to singular types, BCI implies no psychological/physical connection in a typological sense, but focuses on the physical connection in which brain and machine mutually adapt. He added that BMI features technological innovation and significance, but we shouldn’t overstate it—at least for now, it is impossible for BMI to achieve major theoretical breakthroughs.
In the event’s next phase, independent artist Lu Yang displayed several of his works that integrate diverse elements such as religion, philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and modern technology. All these works delve into questions such as “What is consciousness?” and “What is the relationship between brain and consciousness?” Lu created the works based on inspiration from his observation of patients with Parkinson’s disease and his imagination of the clinical application of technologies such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
In the brainstorming session, participants discussed the outlook and extended cognition of BCI technology; BCI-related ethical, legal, and social issues; BCI-based human enhancement; the boundary between human and machine; and other topics relevant to their respective areas of expertise. These included philosophy of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, ethics of life, science-society relationship, science of law, brain-inspired intelligence, BCI, psychology, and brain intelligence and cognitive function.
Song Bing, vice president of the Berggruen Institute and Director of the Berggruen China Center, delivered a closing speech. She concluded that the workshop analyzed the main purpose and orientation of the research projects launched by the Berggruen China Center; namely, to facilitate the integration, clash, and mutual inspiration among frontier technologies and philosophy to inspire Chinese thinkers to reflect on Chinese philosophy.