Tongue Drive System; Exploring the Deontological Ethics of Espionage in a Wireless Technology Era

Kinsel, Michael, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Earle, Joshua, University of Virginia

Technical Project: Tongue Drive System

For our technical/capstone project, my team, Magmotion, developed a medical assistive
device using a tongue drive system. The tongue drive system was a wearable assistive device
designed to help individuals with spinal cord injuries or neuromuscular diseases, specifically
quadriplegics, navigate the world more effectively by allowing them to control an electric
wheelchair with their tongue. Spinal injuries affected more than 7,800 Americans each
year, with an estimated 294,000 living in the United States at the time of the project. Of
these individuals, approximately 60% suffered from quadriplegia, paralysis below the neck.
The head-worn device was equipped with magnetic field sensors to track the fluctuations in
the magnetic field caused by a magnet attached to the user’s tongue.

This system improved over the traditional ”sip and puff” system, which was often high
maintenance and non-intuitive. Using data from the sensors, an MSP432 microcontroller
performed data processing to determine the tongue’s position and transformed that into
control data, which could then be outputted to a wheelchair. Due to time and resource
constraints, the project did not utilize a physical electric wheelchair; instead, it sent the
control data to a virtual wheelchair through a computer simulation. The device was designed
to be easy and intuitive, requiring as little outside assistance as possible.

Overall, the system demonstrated functionality but presented some limitations during
testing that we had not anticipated. One such limitation was that the system read data
too quickly. As a result, when a user intends to move forward and rotate clockwise, the
user might momentarily move backward due to the tongue’s movement passing through the
backward command on the way to the rotate clockwise command, depending on the user’s
customized controls. Although this backward movement was brief, it was noticeable.
We tried several approaches to mitigate this issue. One strategy involved slowing down
the sampling rate, which sometimes resulted in capturing unintended commands, causing the
simulation to malfunction. Another method we explored was maintaining a list of commands
over some time and executing the majority command within that list. This approach worked,
but its downside was the high demand for computing power, which hindered the system from
running at a competitive speed and thus proved ineffective.

While the limitation was minor, it remained perceptible and significant, especially considering
that the system was intended for integration with real electric wheelchairs. This
issue required further attention in future iterations of the system.

STS Project: Exploring the Deontological Ethics of Espionage in a Wireless Technology Era

My thesis explored the impact of wireless technology on modern society, focusing particularly
on its role in espionage activities for military intelligence. Wireless technology reshaped
global communication and access to information, making the ethical considerations surrounding
intelligence gathering increasingly significant. The study employed a Deontological lens
to examine the topic, emphasizing Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, which prioritizes the inherent
nature of actions over their consequences. The focus on duty, universalizable principles,
and categorical imperatives guided the investigation into the moral dimensions of wireless
surveillance. This investigation is aimed at discerning the inherent morality of wireless espionage
through Deontological principles, contributing to a deeper understanding of the ethical intricacies
in modern intelligence operations. The thesis concluded with practical recommendations
for fostering responsible and transparent intelligence practices in the wireless technology era,
addressing the balance between national security imperatives and individual rights.
Overall, the research sought to illuminate critical actors and networks involved in wireless
espionage and established Actor-Network Theory as a valuable tool for ethical assessments
in the realm of data collection and surveillance.

Investigating the ethics of espionage through any lens was challenging due to the clan-
destine nature of the field. There was limited evidence, first-hand accounts, interviews, or
published methodologies or operations available. However, some insights were uncovered
under the lens of Deontology and Actor-Network Theory. A major takeaway was that any
topic concerning people’s privacy and individual rights can be viewed from various angles,
with Deontological ethics being just one approach. Further, given the nature of the topic,
this method might not be the most effective way to examine it.

Deontology emphasizes people’s rights and the order in which things ”should” be done.
Yet, during the war, access to information is paramount, and human behavior does not always
adhere to established rules and regulations, despite how hypocritical that may seem.
Espionage thrives on attacking where an enemy is unprepared and appearing where unexpected.
In times of war and conflict, when information is essential for strategic and tactical
purposes, private companies, governments, and other international actors may set aside individual
rights and democratic liberties to gain a strategic advantage.

Therefore, while Deontologically, the deployment, and development of wireless technology
for espionage may be morally wrong due to its ability to infringe on privacy and individual
rights, practical recommendations might be of little use in practice, as adhering to them
could place the practitioner at a disadvantage against other actors. Nonetheless, engaging in
this thought experiment provides value for future policy considerations and situations where
anticipatory governance may be relevant.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Assistive Devices, Quadraplegia, Wireless Communication, Security, Government

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering

Technical Advisor: Adam Barnes

STS Advisor: Joshua Earle

Technical Team Members: Dhruv Batra, Yeabsira Mekonnen, Nicholas Talton

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