Medical science has progressed to restore hearing to the deaf, and sight to the blind. It has made strides in overcoming paralysis and can treat an incredible range of illnesses and conditions.
The next step involves brain-machine interfaces (BMI). They promise to address the same issues but rather than using mechanical means or drug treatments it only uses brain activity detection and stimulation to treat a patient.
While the next few years may deliver a revolution in this field of neuroscience it comes on the back of decades and even centuries of advances in our understanding of the incredible machines that are humans. The focus has been on restoring optimum health and functionality but it also has an evolutionary impact on us.
Our environment remains a major factor that shapes our adaptation. Once it was the only factor and, like all other organisms, we were subject to natural selection, popularised by Charles Darwin 1800s.
A short history
By then, we had already begun to intervene in the hand we were dealt with by nature as we made glasses to compensate for problems with our vision and other mechanical devices to aid walking or hearing.
Then we added biological devices like pacemakers and insulin regulators that operated with the other major innovation in medicine - drugs.
Cellular intervention is still very new and includes stem cell therapies and the still-experimental gene editing.
The lessons from these devices and innovation in miniaturisation, robotics and computing have lead to the creation of Neuralink by Elon Musk in 2016. In July 2019 they presented what they have achieved so far and it does promise significant advances in neuroscience.
The key innovation is the incredibly small size of the device and the impressive volume of data it can detect and send via threads that are so small only a robot can implant them into the brain.
Neuroplasticity - the concept that practice makes perfect. Brain cells don’t appear to know what they are doing nor do they do the same thing each time. We are not machines and so we lack fidelity. But what we gain is very dynamic learning.— A very useful human ability and a challenge to brain-machine interfaces
I will leave the amazing technical achievements to those that want to take a deep dive and focus on what it may allow.
It begins with a basic outline of what our brain is; an organ for interpreting sensors and sending signals. Our limbs, eyes and ears are not able to do anything with the sensation, light or sound they perceive, they simply encode it as electrical signals and send it to the brain. There those electrical signals are given meaning and in response generate new electrical signals that allow us to move, speak and think.
We are not exactly sure how it does this as you don’t learn how to breathe or know how to lift your little finger; you somehow just do.
The Neuralink device can detect a lot more of those signals and even create ones that your brain can’t distinguish from other brain cells.
While the brain has specific regions that respond and regulate specific actions, it does so in a way that is very flexible and allows parts of the brain to learn how to react and generate new signals in a process described in neuroplasticity. If you learn a new language it is hard at first but gets easier with time as your neurons get connected to both understand and convey your ideas in the new language. Playing an instrument or getting fit is a way your body responds to the brain creating new ways to move. It may be that your muscles grow as a result of you playing soccer every week, but it is your brain that allows you to become better with your dribbling and more accurate with your passes.
If you stop playing, not only do your muscles shrink, your brain begins to lose the mapping to perform the tasks and either becomes idle or gets mapped to do something else.
Neurologically you could say the brain is all about differences that make a difference. As cells are stimulated or stimulate other cells it creates an impact. This device is the interface to detect and create those differences with far greater clarity and in far larger volumes than any other previous devices.
It can detect the brain signals that are associated with movement and speech which would allow you to control devices or use prosthetics with thought.
You can use it emulate touch, pressure, temperature, sight and sound.
You could mitigate or even eliminate the effects associated with Parkinson’s disease, Epilepsy and Dystonia (tremors) and even Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and may control depression, chronic pain and issues like tinnitus.
At the moment drugs are used to block or permit the flow of information across neurons, but drugs may be expensive to synthesise, have side effects and need to be taken regularly. Electrical stimulation uses tiny pulses of battery power via a device that remains in the brain and should last for years if not a lifetime and need only be activated when needed.
It may even be possible once we understand the brain activity that creates the conditions to not only stop it but help the brain remap new ways to bypass neurons that are damaged and creating the issue.
Elon Musk believes, like many others, that as we tackle issues related to heart health and cancer the next major group of illnesses are neurological and are associated with ageing like dementia.
A device to better monitor the situation may extend the productive use of the brain even if we can’t stop or reverse the biological failure.
This is all assuming the only efforts are to restore lost or missing functionality but it should be able to enhance and add new functionality too.
Here is where the ethical questions become key and while we are still at the very start of the process, we are always surprised at just how fast some of these technologies can develop.
The next steps
Once you can detect for hunger in someone that is overweight, you can counter it. A thought diet.
Need to calm down or psych yourself up? You could. A soldier or surgeon that needs to focus can filter out unwanted distractions and sustain concentration for longer.
Add improved sensors and you can see in infrared or ultraviolet, you can hear whale song or the same things dogs do.
Will be expensive? New is never cheap although the small parts with scale can be produced cheaply. The interface is software which has a zero marginal cost. The major challenge is that only a machine can do the surgery to implant the device which will be the greatest cost but also the greatest opportunity as it can do it more often and for longer than any surgeon. It too can be mass-produced.
What can go wrong?
If it is made proprietary and someone like a pharma bro takes control of the company, it can become a solution only for the wealthy. If it was a completely open-source solution you could see it proliferate in the way that cryptocurrencies have with some offering free implants in exchange for your mental activity or, dare I say it, receiving ad prompts.
Regulation during the testing phases will be rigorous but once proved safe we are back in the territory of privacy and challenges with regulators in most countries not being equipped to regulate it. If run by multinationals as is very likely individual countries may not be able to regulate it in the same way apps allow citizens to engage in activities that countries can’t even detect.
It is a controlling device. Governments may be tempted to want to regulate citizen response and behaviour. Society may be seduced by the idea of stopping a serial offender from committing a crime, but should we?
If we are struggling to decide who gets to compete in sporting codes because of physiology; what do you do when someone who manages an affliction is also able to enhance their concentration and so get an edge in sport?
The device is intended to work with inputs from the secondary device, like a phone. What might happen should your phone get stolen or hacked?
It is still very early and there are multiple teams working on the engineering, neuroscience and ethics all around the world. Rather than assume this is all just too complex for you to deal with, don’t wait like the generation in the 40s to find out smoking would kill you, or the current generation that was told in the 70s about global warming and mostly ignored it for three decades. This change will move quickly, I would imagine it would mirror mobile phone innovation. Many phone manufacturers and big data companies are already working on health devices. They will see the opportunity of brain-machine interfaces and so drive the costs down and the adoption up. It will affect you and it certainly will affect your children. don’t limit your concerns to issues of crime, education, the evils of social media or the loss of privacy and don’t think you can always just move somewhere else. If we don’t approach this with our minds and eyes wide open, we will be damning them to a bleak future wherever they may go.
I am optimistic. But I was also optimistic when we got the web and mobile phones and social media. What has made me weary is how often we think ignorance is a good response until it gives way to fear and anger.
You already have an incredible ability to perceive and process information, please make use of it.
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