Control and Ownership of Neuroprosthetic Speech
Maslen, H, Rainey, S
Philosophy and Technology
© 2020, The Author(s). Implantable brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are being developed to restore speech capacity for those who are unable to speak. Patients with locked-in syndrome or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis could be able to use covert speech – vividly imagining saying something without actual vocalisation – to trigger neural controlled systems capable of synthesising speech. User control has been identified as particularly pressing for this type of BCI. The incorporation of machine learning and statistical language models into the decoding process introduces a contribution to (or ‘shaping of’) the output that is beyond the user’s control. Whilst this type of ‘shared control’ of BCI action is not unique to speech BCIs, the automated shaping of what a user ‘says’ has a particularly acute ethical dimension, which may differ from parallel concerns surrounding automation in movement BCIs. This paper provides an analysis of the control afforded to the user of a speech BCI of the sort under development, as well as the relationships between accuracy, control, and the user’s ownership of the speech produced. Through comparing speech BCIs with BCIs for movement, we argue that, whilst goal selection is the more significant locus of control for the user of a movement BCI, control over process will be more significant for the user of the speech BCI. The design of the speech BCI may therefore have to trade off some possible efficiency gains afforded by automation in order to preserve sufficient guidance control necessary for users to express themselves in ways they prefer. We consider the implications for the speech BCI user’s responsibility for produced outputs and their ownership of token outputs. We argue that these are distinct assessments. Ownership of synthetic speech concerns whether the content of the output sufficiently represents the user, rather than their morally relevant, causal role in producing that output.