Printed: 2020-06-03

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Brain Implants: to thought-talk, control machines, enhance memory

Dick Pelletier

Ethical Technology

February 19, 2013

Our brain is the source of everything that makes us human: language, creativity, rationality, emotion, communication, culture, and politics. Now, researchers are set to repair brain functions, to create mind-machine interfaces, and enhance human mental capacities in radical ways.

Today we enjoy basic conversations with our smartphone, desktop PC, games console, TV and, soon, our car; but voice recognition, many believe, should not be viewed as an endgame technology. Although directing electronics with voice and gestures may be considered state-of-the-art today, we will soon be controlling entertainment and communications equipment not by talking or waving; but just by thinking!

Forget Siri, if future-thinking researchers have their way, your brain could soon be chatting away on the phone. A new implant developed by UC-Berkeley neuroscientist, Robert Knight, could create a game-changing relationship between you and your machines. You may soon be able to transmit thoughts via the Internet using a translator chip implanted in the brain that converts thoughts into synthesized words.

This work paves the way for implants that will one day monitor a person's thoughts and speak words and sentences as they are imagined. However, there are privacy issues to consider. For example, will we be able to distinguish between words a person wants to say and thoughts they would rather keep private.

But regardless of privacy issues, the technology will go forward. The goal is to help patients rendered voiceless by strokes or other ailments speak their thoughts directly, Knight says, much like Stephen Hawking, the famed physicist who speaks only with the aid of a computer synthesizer.

Most brain implants consist of a tiny chip with electrodes, combining math and neuroscience. At their heart is an algorithm that deciphers and replicates the neural code that one layer of the brain sends to another. Observing how neurons 'talk' to each other is helping neuroscientists unravel the mysteries of consciousness; which may provide answers to questions, such as; "Who is the I in I, and why am I here?"

What might this revolutionary neuroscience lead too? Technologies from the movie Avatar, where people remotely piloted genetically-engineered aliens, could become reality in the decades ahead.

Wake Forest's Sam Deadwyler and his team recently implanted microchips in monkeys to recapture lost decision-making processes, demonstrating that a neural prosthetic can recover cognitive function in the brain. The results suggest that neural implants could one day be used in humans to help decide whether to grab a cup of coffee, or remember where you left your keys. Read A Brain Implant that Thinks.

More than 80,000 Parkinson's sufferers have found relief using a deep brain stimulator, and brain electronics were implanted into Alzheimer's patients this year in hopes to slow down this insidious killer.

However, brain stimulators have enjoyed only limited success, so University of Michigan researchers have developed a nanotech coating for brain implants that helps the devices operate longer, and could improve treatment for deafness, paralysis, blindness, epilepsy and Parkinson's disease. Link.

In other areas of this research, Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh scientists have teamed up to work on Intel's Human Brain Project that involves sending human thoughts directly to a computer. Within 10 years, developers hope to create an unobtrusive headset that will allow users to operate wheelchairs, prosthetics, voice synthesizers, and computers, with just their thoughts.

In addition, scientists at the International Swiss Blue Brain Project believe within ten years, they can create an artificial brain with human-like intelligence and consciousness.

As more of the brain's mysteries are understood, experts predict that brain implants will play a more important role in humanity's future. Guger Technologies offers a variety of pocket-sized wireless brain-reading systems, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists have created nanotube bio-transistors that will one day allow wiring prosthetic devices directly into the body's nervous system.

Will brain implant science advance in this timely way? Positive futurists believe that it will. In addition, many people alive today can survive to enjoy this wonder world as it unfolds. Comments welcome.

Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.


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