Developing an interface between the human brain and objects to external devices is a dream that could help millions of people who have lost their mobility or any of their senses, and even introduces the possibility of telekinesis: controlling things with the mind, without direct contact. The most recent project in this regard, Neuralink, a company founded by investor Elon Musk, reveals the advantages and risks of this technology.
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Is it Possible to Connect the Brain to Machines?
By: Gabriel E. Levy B. and Sergio A. Urquijo M.
For decades, engineers and scientists have been looking for solutions to a problem that affects thousands of people: the loss of connection of body organs with the parts of the brain that order movements and perceive sensations. The most frequent cause is accidents in which the nerves are broken, but also degenerative diseases that deteriorate them.
To everyone’s surprise, the knowledge of how the brain works turned out to advance faster than the possibility of reconstructing these nerves, whose constitution remains an enormous challenge.
Thus, projects developed in recent decades have sought to understand how the brain sends electrical signals and which parts are responsible for certain tasks (such as moving an arm or perceiving an image sent by the eye) and then replace the nerves with implanted wires and chips.
The world was shocked in 2016 by the case of Nathan Copeland, a 33-year-old American who became a paraplegic after breaking his spinal cord at the neck in a car accident. That year, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh managed to connect Copeland’s brain to a sophisticated robotic arm, using four electrodes: two in the motor cortex, which is the area where movement is commanded, and two in the sensory cortex, which senses pressure and the location of the arm .
With a lot of training and after getting the brain used to the new type of interaction, the patient was able to move the robotic arm for very simple tasks, and continues to collaborate with the lab as the system improves.
Since then, several people who had lost the mobility of a large part of their body have received similar experimental implants, while thousands more wait for these solutions to improve and enter the market.
Developing “Telepathic” Control
Cases like these stimulated investors in the technology sector, who began to finance universities and companies in the field. The most audacious proposal so far is that of Elon Musk, founder of the companies PayPal and Space X, who announced last year the creation of a new venture: Neuralink, whose objective is to generate this connection, but in a wireless, secure and more complete way. This is stated on the company’s website , which is characterized by its discretion.
“We’re designing the first neural implant that will let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go.”
Although the company has been working very discreetly for two years now, the initiative was brought to the media’s attention with the presentation of a video a few weeks ago, in which a monkey played a simple video game controlled by a microchip implanted in its brain.
The video was presented by Musk himself, who took the opportunity to give a description of the project and its scope; however, he stated that the first objective is to allow a person with limited movement to access and control digital devices, which in turn would allow them to manipulate equipment and even cars.
“Our first goal is to give people with paralysis their digital freedom back.”
What Humanity Stands to Gain
The advantages of this development are many, for the simple fact that more and more machines, devices and systems that integrate our daily life depend on a computer. Therefore, connecting the brain wirelessly would allow not only to manage any device, but even to connect to other brains and the Internet.
Among the most immediate promises are medical applications, such as the one Musk points out, which could restore vision to those who have lost it due to damage to the eye or optic nerve, as a wireless camera could be connected directly to the areas of the brain that process vision. The same would apply to the loss of other senses, such as hearing.
It could also be applied to memory storage, if the scientists of the project and similar initiatives (there are many in addition to Neuralink) manage to understand and unravel the functioning of memory. This would be very useful for those suffering from Alzheimer’s or amnesia, but it would also make it possible, as Musk himself points out, to store memories and information in computers and retrieve them later for our memory, or even to implant memories. But research is still needed for that.
For someone who has lived through what Nathan Copeland has lived through after his accident and in his role as a collaborator with science, Neuralink’s plan is completely valid and necessary. He himself stated to MIT Technology Review that he would not hesitate to get such an implant, as his robotic arm is still connected by wires, which involves many complications, and he considered the idea of the wireless interface as a new step.
“I thought it was really cool, and I felt a little jealous of the person who will end up using it. If we assume it works, that person will be able to do cool things and be the new star of the BCI world. If it all works out, it will definitely change the world and our view of these things.”
The Risks Involved
Naturally, as with any such bold development, the Neuralink project and its ilk carry risks that cannot be overlooked.
On the one hand, there are health risks. As the Pittsburgh researchers warn, any implant can be damaged, and that damage can affect the patient. Clearly, an implant in the brain is much more delicate, since any damage there would be just as serious as the damage it is intended to fix.
That is why the U.S. authorities, with the FDA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, consider that these implants can only be used experimentally in people with paralysis who are willing to take the risk, and should not be in healthy people until there is a much greater breakthrough.
Elon Musk, on the other hand, has stated that every healthy person should be free to decide whether to wear such an implant. The truth is that this is a medical and ethical issue that is just beginning to develop, because the possibility of these implants did not come out of science fiction movies until recently.
“The FDA does not want anything inserted into the head of someone with a functional body, because electrodes that get stuck in the motor cortex could impair some function. So starting with people who have already lost some function is a good place to start. It’s a technology that could be helpful for a wide range of diseases and could enable new breakthroughs.”
But with implants being part of a mind-computer interface, many other even more complex risks arise, both technological and ethical. how would a computer glitch or virus affect the connected brain? Would it be possible to hack into a mind and enter it to steal information or alter memories and thoughts? Could this, like genetic engineering, become another area of discrimination for people of lesser means?
It is because of these doubts that the world’s authorities will demand much more research before giving the green light to the commercialization of any system of this type. Researchers are also clear about this, even though Musk has mentioned a “few years” when referring to the time in which the Neuralink project will be mature.
Jennifer Collinger, a researcher in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh, the place where they developed the robotic system for Nathan Copeland, told the BBC that despite the huge financial resources and strong team working on the Neuralink project, it may take longer than Musk has estimated.
“Medical device development takes time and safety needs to be a top priority, so I suspect this process will take longer than what they have set as their goal.”
Either way, the progress so far remains so astounding that even if Neuralink fails to meet its goals on schedule, it will encourage other investors to sponsor the expensive but fascinating projects that are beginning to unify humans with systems.
In conclusion, the interconnection between sophisticated electronic systems and human biology no longer only occupies the spaces of science fiction. Technologies such as Neuralink, promoted by Elon Musk, will materialize the dream of connecting the mind with computerized systems, improving the quality of life of millions of people around the world who have lost limbs, allowing access in a much more understandable way to the interior of the human mind, while opening an ethical, moral and medical debate full of uncertainties.