The Neuralink company is on track to start human trials of its implant technology and it seems likely that brain implants will be ready for human use within this century, sooner rather than later. What does that mean for you?
What Is a BCI, or Brain-Computer Interface?
The name “brain-computer interface” already tells you most of what you need to know, but in essence, it’s a direct path of communication between the neurons of your brain and a computer system.
BCIs have been around for a long time and have been successfully used to allow, for example, paralyzed people to control robotic arms with just a thought. BCIs are distinct from devices that, for example, read the signals from your muscles or are connected to nerves outside of your brain, but those technologies are obviously related to BCIs.
In the case of the Neuralink prototype, it consists of incredibly fine electrodes referred to as “neural threads” that are installed by a robotic system, along with a connected Link device. Power is provided to the link device wirelessly without any break in the skin required. Older BCI devices, such as those made by BrainGate, require a port that connects the brain to the outside world. So a fully sealed implant, such as the type Neuralink promises, would already be a big advancement.
Medical Implants vs. Elective Implants
At this early stage, Neuralink is pitching its implant as a next-generation medical device. To provide a link between different parts of the brain and computer systems that can help restore visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive functions. It’s important to understand that Neuralink is trying to perfect the connection, not the computer technology that will actually provide those solutions, but these sorts of medical applications are part of the roadmap.
There’s no way to understate how important BCI technologies that could help people with profound neurological problems are, and no one is seriously arguing against that application. However, in the long-term, the idea behind implants such as the Neuralink example is that people who are otherwise perfectly healthy will choose to have a BCI installed.
When you move a device like a BCI from being a lifesaving or restorative medical device to an elective operation, the considerations change. After all, no operation is trivial or without risk.
Augmentation and BCI Benefits
Artificial augmentation of humans is a scientific field that’s advancing rapidly. Prosthetic limbs now exist that can move in response to signals from nerves or remaining muscle tissue. There are even limbs that can feed sensations such as touch back to the brain!
Since technology has no limitation other than the laws of physics (and how smart we are,) it stands to reason that some of these replacement parts will eventually be better than the fleshy bits that were originally there. Plenty of cyberpunk fiction has been written to that effect, but the reality of this situation may be closer than most people realize.
If you could operate your devices using nothing but the power of thought, fly a drone-like it was an extension of your body, or beam VR experiences directly into your brain, how many people would line up for the procedure?
This is a question you may have to answer for yourself as the 21st-century rolls along, or it may be one that your children will face. It could be a particularly tough choice when people who opt-in to get implanted may have cognitive advantages that make them preferable as employees or allow them to achieve more than those who turn down the implants.
From Cybersecurity to Cyborg-Security
It can be disastrous to suffer a malware attack on your computer or to have one of your online accounts compromised. But it would be way worse if someone hacked your brain implant—not just from a privacy perspective, but from having a malicious actor in your brain. Assuming that BCIs will eventually feed information into our brains rather than just reading neural activity, it opens up the potential for actual brain hacking.
Does that sound far-fetched? Well, apart from the relatively crude “hacking” that psychology makes possible (and marketers use with gusto) there are devices that can literally change your mind already.
For example, using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, it’s possible to change the way people think about moral decisions. Having a device in your brain that can stimulate your neurons directly might stimulate them to make you see or hear things, influence your emotional state, or, at some advanced future point, literally put thoughts in your head. These are all issues that will have to be addressed in a serious way, but the fact remains that there’s no such thing as perfect security.
This is especially true since a BCI is only useful if it can connect to things outside the brain, and that’s true for current implants as well, which have wireless technology that doctors can use to get diagnostic information or change settings. This is why hackers were able to put malware on pacemakers.
The Danger of Implant Obsolescence
If you think that feeling pressure to buy a new iPhone every two or three years is intense, think about having a brain implant that’s so out of date that you need to undergo another surgery to upgrade it. While we don’t doubt that BCI designers will try to make their systems as future-proof as possible, the pace of technology development makes it inevitable.
What About Noninvasive BCIs?
Right now, putting electrodes into a person’s brain offers by far the most precise and information-rich way to know what’s happening in your grey matter, but it may not be the only way. Noninvasive BCIs, such as one developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, can read information from your brain without anyone digging around in it. These technologies are also on a development trajectory of their own and perhaps one day they’ll be as good as implantable BCIs, which would make them a preferred solution for various reasons.
Would You Get a Brain Implant?
Assuming that a product like the Neuralink was safe and worked as advertised, would you let someone drill a hole in your skull to install one? How much benefit would you need from such a device to make the invasion of your neurology worth it? None of us will really know until we actually have to make the choice, but it’s a good idea to start thinking about it now because that day is around the corner.
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