AI Cognitive Enhancements: Implications for Psychological Health

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A brain-computer interface (BCI), or brain-machine interface (BMI), represents a method for connecting the biological brain to an external technological device. Connections can be made by invasive techniques that involve surgical implants or non-invasive techniques where brain signals are received through external sensors. Current nonmedical uses of this technology include command and control applications such as control of robots and virtual reality environments and for entertainment purposes (e.g., Stars Wars Force Trainer Game).

This technology also suggests incredible possibilities for use in both the medical and mental health fields. For example, there has been significant progress in the use of these technologies to control prosthetic limbs, to restore eyesight, and to allow people who are unable to speak to communicate with computers. There is also the possibility for artificial intelligence (AI) technology to be coupled directly to the brain in order to restore neurological functions following a stroke, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or other organic disorders. Therapeutic biofeedback applications and automated administration of medication during times of stress or a change in mood are other potential uses of this type of technology.

The coupling of AI technologies directly to the human brain could also be used to enhance general cognitive abilities and ultimately lead to super-intelligence in humans. While portrayals of cyborgs and discussions of emerging human super-intelligence abound in science fiction and in the popular media, what has received less attention are the real-world ramifications that this technology may have on the psychological well-being of people. Even currently available technologies that can be worn to provide humans with special capabilities, such as Google Glass, have behavioral and social implications that go beyond basic privacy concerns.

Technological cognitive enhancements may alter personality and behavior and do so in surprising ways. For example, they may boost confidence and improve self-esteem by helping people overcome particular deficits. They may also alter one’s perceptions of self and world by creating beliefs of superiority over others or even inducing psychotic states.

Because of the heightened capabilities that AI cognitive enhancements can provide, they may drive some people to engage in risky behaviors, such as compulsive gambling. Moreover, AI cognitive enhancements, especially those that are unobservable by others (e.g., implants), may foster anxiety and mistrust between people. This is because our understanding of what is “natural” or expected behavior of others, such as our beliefs about the intellectual capabilities and intentions of others, will be altered and rife with uncertainty. Consider, for example, the psychosocial implications of knowing that the strangers whom you pass on the street may be using facial recognition technology to identify you and instantaneously obtain your personal information, such as your street address. These are but a few examples of how this technology may contribute to significant changes in human behavior and social interaction.

As the capabilities of these technologies continue to advance, there will be both useful applications that serve to help people as well as implications for psychological health. I predict that the widespread use of this technology may one day result in the discussion and classification of entirely new psychological disorders.

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Dr. David Luxton is a research psychologist at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology.
Originally Published: 
Friday, September 6, 2013
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Dr. David Luxton
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