Impaired mobility or sensory ability stripped from us as the result of a genetic issue, accident at birth or later in life need not be a life sentence now. Stories about technology empowering those affected by disability, through provision of prosthetic devices and brain-to-machine interfaces can be uplifting. However, this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible, and coming down the pipeline of discovery, so perhaps it is time to take stock and think about our options; to ask, where are brain-computer interfaces taking us?
Back in 2014 and 2015, in-depth investigation into how the brain works with muscle signals and a sense of the task that we want to achieve led to a breakthrough to achieve better brain to machine instructions and more realistic performance of artificial limbs. Richard Andersen, a Caltech researcher, and his lab members, demonstrated that by targeting stimulation of the posterior parietal cortex in the cerebrum (a region towards the back part of the brain) they could help a tetraplegic operate a robotic arm, not by thinking about individual movements but by forming an intention or goal for the desired task of, for example desiring the act of drinking from a cup. Goal-directed movement, using robotics, takes the tedious actions out of the process. We don't need to think about all the little pieces: move arm, close finger 1, 2, 3, 4 and thumb around cup, tilt wrist, lift arm and so forth.
This approach used was one that placed a computer chip into the brain. We often hear about electrodes implanted into regions of the brain via long thin wires. A new recent approach to the brain-computer interface (BCI): At Melbourne University, in Australia, Nick Opie has been working on a cross between an electrode and a stent called a stentrode. There is a video clip which shows what it looks like, and more background information here.
This is like a stent for the brain, about 3 cm long, and once inside a blood vessel in the brain, body tissue grows over it anchoring it in place. Importantly this anchoring does not reduce effectiveness, as happens with electrodes directly implanted into brain tissue. And the insertion procedure decreases the risk of infection with BCIs.
It is designed to provide paraplegics with a more effective way to take a short cut around damaged nerves in the body; to use arms and hands, control wheelchairs, write sentences, and even do all these things at the same time. So far so good.
This is a two-way street though: recording brain activity and sending triggers into the brain, and there are other approaches too. For example, Elon Musk's company, Neuralink, is working with 'as many as 3,072 electrodes' with a 'neurosurgical robot capable of inserting...192 electrodes...per minute' to provide a much more complex platform for such electrical intervention.
Once we are hooked up with such a neural net what might be possible? Or, looking at this from a corporation's point of view, what is the market for this technology? Could this be used for gaming, to provide a more realistic sensory experience? Might it improve sleep for those with sleep issues? Could it be used to affect emotional response, and to download new information into the brain to change memories and end post traumatic stress disorder?
In 2016 there was a published report that presents a breakthrough in learning achieved by downloading information into the brain. Soldiers learning to pilot planes were used in an unusual experiment. In Malibu, California, at the HRL laboratories associated with The Boeing Company and General Motors, a team led by Dr. Matthew Phillips gathered the patterns of activity present in the brains of six pilots when they were flying using a flight simulator. These patterns were then fed into the brains of learners (novice trainees) while they attempted flying the simulator, by using a head cap that allowed for the low-current technique of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). And the experiment resulted in faster learning times for these practical skills by novice pilots.
This blurring between artificial input or machine simulation and our perception of reality, as well as the imminent possibility that we may find ourselves stepping into a fabricated reality from someone else’s brain, makes paranoia understandable. And once again, laws and the culture of ethics have not yet caught up with rights and responsibilities in such an environment. And where does this leave individuality and creativity? On the other hand, such an approach, towards the virtual, might end up leading us down a path of less dependence on 'real' material possessions. It will be a matter of walking into these technologies, when they are offered, with more than a focus on personal pleasure and ease of life in mind. To ask where brain-computer interfaces are taking us.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb