S07E13 of Connection Problem: Brain-Computer Interface for Subconscious Decision-Making

Note: I’ll try to cross-post my weekly newsletter here on the blog, too, in an attempt to both to make it easier to read this via RSS feed and to have this in my own independent archives.


Hey hey,

Thanks for the many folks who’ve been taking up my let’s-jump-on-a-call experiment; for October there are still slots available that you can book super easily here, but of course you can also ping me and we’ll find other time slots if that’s easier. Just hit reply on this email!

Also, for those of you who prefer RSS over email, I’ll be trying to cross-post this newsletter over on the blog, too. I cannot quite promise that that’s going to stay the method going forward, but I appreciate the feedback and share the desire for a working RSS feed. If you’re not familiar with RSS feeds and how to get started, it’s a super convenient way to read stuff on the web. Matt Webb has written it up super-accessibly at aboutfeeds.com.

— Peter


You’re receiving this because you signed up for this newsletter on tinyletter.com/pbihr or through my company’s website, thewavingcat.com. The Waving Cat is a boutique research and strategic advisory firm; I also co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit that explores responsible tech. On Twitter, I’m @peterbihr. If you’d like to work with me or bounce ideas, let’s have a chat.


Thought experiment: BCI for sub-conscious decision-making?

What if brain-computer interfaces (BCI) not for military use (link goes to RAND) but rather to leverage human decision-making on a more intuitive level? This is a long shot and I’m not at all convinced this will ever be possible, but as a thought experiment: What if we could get a BCI to empower humans to interface more directly and intuitively with big data? Humans are great at pattern recognition, and I bet given the right interface a person could make quite good, nearly sub-conscious decisions much faster than waiting for patterns to stabilize and become more apparent through the usual channels.

The bigger challenge still might be to then also build an interface from that analysis to policy and political decision-making, but that’ll always be a crucial issue anyhow.

By the way. This RAND report on the state of military BCI research that I linked to above? The summary sounds pretty predictable: Need more research, need to cover ethical issues. RAND identifies a need to “Address the trust deficit, as cultural barriers among service members will likely be high.” Alas, the solution to there not being trust is tackled — as it is so often — by trying to “increase trust” rather than “increasing trustworthiness”, which makes all the difference. Trust as a branding exercise? Good luck with that.


Strengthening civil society’s voice in the AI debate

I was very happy to see the announcement of European AI Fund, a new funding program by a rock-solid alliance of foundations that aims to strengthen civil society’s role in the AI debate both by leveling up those organizations that deal with AI-related issues and to build capacity in those civil society orgs that have impact but not a strong background in AI and related technologies. This program is an iniative by Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, King Baudouin Foundation, Luminate, Mozilla, Oak Foundation, Open Society Foundations and Stiftung Mercator.

This is also 100% aligned with the findings of a report I co-authored (direct link to the PDF) with Leonie Beining and Stefan Heumann earlier this year, published by Stiftung Neue Verantwortung and ThingsCon, where we found the voice of civil society in this area of policy needs to be strengthened, amplified and invited at all costs if we’re ever to build sustainable, inclusive AI that works for all and not just for vendors.


Best practices for group video calls

A few months into The Year Of Zoom, it’s been great to see video call etiquette evolve in leaps and bounds. As most of you, I’ve been spending a lot of time in video calls. A what a difference it makes how a group call is moderated. It’s the difference between a joyful experience and a comedy sketch.

As much as as a reminder for myself as a recommendation for everyone else, some of my favorite habits I’ve seen from excellent video call hosts:

  • Expectation management: Let everyone know upfront about the length of the call, what’s OK to do, what isn’t, how to signal if you want to speak, when to expect breaks.
  • Active participation management: Great hosts make sure to pay great attention to who wants to speak, and who might need some encouragement rather than be expected to butt into a group conversation.
  • Pandemic-friendly ground rules: This might easily be the most relevant in the list, or the area where I’ve seen the most interesting evolution. Assume everyone spends too much of the day in video calls, often in a home office setting. Acknowledging that it’s OK to switch off the camera; to take bio breaks; to open the door for a package delivery; to have kids play in the background; etc.

Just giving people the mandate to take care of their own needs makes a ton of difference. I truly hope that more people will follow those examples, and that we can keep them way past the pandemic.


Tribes of the Ledger

So if you read this you know I love to rant about the blockchain. Not because of inherent issues with the tech, but because of the way that whole scene is so over-shadowed by crypto bros and folks who’re into sketchy finance.

In a recent lovely conversation with Jim Kosem, he off-handedly pointed something out that really made this click into place for me. He mentioned that there are four major groups that influenced this space (and I hope I’m not misrepresenting this as I’m writing this up from memory):

  • Security/crypto folks
  • Finance folks
  • cooperatists & idealists
  • libertarians

Two out of those four groups or tribes I’m down with, the other two I’d rather stay clear off because they tend to create too toxic a culture for my personal taste. (I’ll leave it to you to figure out which ones.)

What I wasn’t aware of is that there is a shift away from the term blockchain especially by the more idealistic, less toxic in that scene. A semantic mass migration, an exodus of sorts, to get away from those cultural associations and towards a better culture, represented by the term distributed ledger technologies or DTM for short.

I had previously thought that DTM is simply a superset that blockchain is a part of. And that’s true, but really it’s also about a reframing of the field. Anyway, it’s always interesting to see a field find itself, and this still has some self-finding to do.


Small bits & pieces

How We Survive the Winter (The Atlantic) / The Cut podcast by New York Magazin and Avery Trufelman / Face-mask recognition has arrived (National Geographic) / The Prodigal Techbro (Conversationalist) / ID’ing movies by fingerprinting the breath for isoprene (Interconnected)


Currently reading: The City We Became, N. K. Jemisin. The Uncertainty Mindset, Vaughn Tan.


If you’d like to work with me or have a chat to explore collaborations, let’s chat! 


Who writes here? Peter Bihr explores how emerging technologies can have a positive social impact. At the core of his work is the mission to align emerging technologies and citizen empowerment. To do this, he works at the intersection of technology, governance, policy and social impact — with foundations, public and private sector. He is the founder of The Waving Cat, a boutique research and strategic advisory firm. He co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit that explores fair, responsible, and human-centric technologies for IoT and beyond. Peter was a Mozilla Fellow (2018-19) and an Edgeryders Fellow (2019). He tweets at @peterbihr and blogs at thewavingcat.com. Interested in working together? Let’s have a chat.

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Header image: Moebius

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