Getting Closer to the Brain Implant

In February I wrote an article in Popular Science about a project to implant electrodes in a monkey's brain allowing the monkey to control a robot arm with its mind. The goal of this work is to let paralyzed people operate prosthetic limbs by thought alone. Now the research team has announced another big step in that direction: their first work on humans.

They implanted their electrodes into the brains of people undergoing surgery for Parkinson's disease and tremor disorders, and then had the patients play a video game with a joystick. (In brain surgery, patients don't get general anasthesia.) After a little gaming, the researchers removed the electrodes and the surgery resumed. The signals the electrodes captured from the brains of patients as they produced action commands proved to be so clear that a computer was able to use them to predict which way the patients had moved the joystick. Now the researchers are applying to the government to do long-term research on electrodes implanted in quadriplegics.

As is the case with many neuroscientific breakthroughs (memory-boosting drugs for the elderly, sleep-suppressing drugs for narcoleptics), the thorny question arises: should healthy people be allowed (or required for their job) to get an implant? After all, wouldn't you want to run your computer, your car, or your military killer-robot with your mind?


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I'd spring for it. Anything that'll take the strain off my wrists! (19 years old and allready starting to have wrist pain from typing too much).

But seriously, advances in computing are going to need better access to humanity. Stuff like clicking on windows and dragging virtual pieces of paper (the window metaphor) around are a silly bit of mediation between my mind and raw data. What the ethical and political implications of this are however is thorny and complex.

As an aside, your blog is great carl.

To be able to get a signal past a severed nerve in the spine is a dream. To be able to run again would be heaven. ...but walking past a Wifi hotspot might prove a challenge...

There will come a day, and all too soon, when those humans who now see themselves as indispensable, and poised to benefit from this inhuman research, will have become as disposable as the primates whose involuntary participation was deemed necessary for its progress.

"The signals the electrodes captured from the brains of patients as they produced action commands proved to be so clear that a computer was able to use them to predict which way the patients had moved the joystick."

Therein lies the danger. What if two persons brain patterns or signals happened to be the same. Then somebody else could walk into your house or personal life and command to do things in your absence or as well in your presence itself, overriding your command ?

Is this brain signal unique to every individual like our thumb print or retina map? If it is so then each one of us can walk around with a little antenna sticking out of our forehead and identifying with unique thought waves every time we need to operate a device. What if it is not so unique?

Finally having understood the mechanism and nature of the signals as it was easy to be interfaced with a computer, what if some maverick artificially generates these signals and uses them for his own purpose? What if the Governments were to get hold of this synthesis procedure?

Bye and take care.Although we all may not be around when this comes to our drawing rooms :-)

S.Sharath Chandra

By S.Sharath Chandra (not verified) on 24 Mar 2004 #permalink

Well, as a matter of fact I do run my computer and my car with my mind - I just use some limbs and stuff as well! Doing it without hands and feet might be great for quadriplegics, but I'm not sure it would be any easier for the rest of us. The basic task would be equally complicated, so I would place a small bet that it would end up requiring exactly the same amount of concentration and effort, after getting used to it. Hands in paticular are pretty good output devices for real-world purposes and wiring around them might turn out to be as perverse as wiring around your keyboard in order to write a letter by feeding impulses direct to the internal wiring of your computer.
A very interesting and cogent piece, though - keep up the good work!

In response to S. Sarath Chandra security concerns parallel development of quantum encrypton technology in conjunction with implant technology would likely eliminate if not resolve this issue.

Too me the larger issues looming will be when computational technology, surpasses human ability. At this confluence will human and machine fuse, and the progressive evolution of human life shift away from biological to machine.

This is issue many futurists have pondered, "Ray Kurzweil" specifically and others. The future holds many potentials to reduce human suffering, but to me the larger issue is the ultimate fate of human beings!

By Wendell Kneller (not verified) on 04 Apr 2004 #permalink