The race is on in Silicon Valley to develop functioning and marketable neural interfaces. Is that goal within reach?
June 30, 2023
The Silicon Valley race may long have been about making your desktop faster and giving your mobile phone a sleeker user experience, but increasingly it’s a race of connecting such devices to your brain. Companies the likes of Kernel, Synchron, and most famously Elon Musk’s start-up Neuralink, are among the many now looking to fix, and then maybe boost, the human brain.
“The idea of using brain implants clinically is well established. Just think of cochlear implants or deep brain stimulation. There are several clinical trials ongoing that aim to expand the use of implants to treat complex diseases,” explains Dr. Tracey Laabs, chief development officer at the Wyss Centre for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva. “But of course, many people have an interest in making their brain function somehow ‘better’ too.”
It’s not all just speculative work either. One implant – the first to work wirelessly – was tested in late 2016 and found to restore the movement in the legs of rhesus monkeys, effective within weeks of receiving a debilitating injury. In another recent case, BrainGate2, a system of pill-sized electrodes implanted in the brain’s motor cortex and into the arm, was used to restore movement to the arms and hands of a man who had been paralyzed in a bicycle accident eight years prior. A similar system, dubbed NeuroLife, has been used to bypass an injured spinal cord to allow a patient to regain control of his hands. Yet as Laabs suggests, such innovations are not just about seeking to repair the broken. There have been some fascinating proofs of concept in attempts to enhance brain function too. Professor Newton Howard of Oxford University has successfully prototyped his Ni2o, a nanoscale artificial brain in the form of a high-bandwidth neural implant and the proprietary algorithms to run it. And Washington DC’s Society for Neuroscience has reported that a University of Southern California team has developed a ‘memory prosthesis’ brain implant, said to boost performance in memory tests. So far, so dystopian. Or utopian, depending on your viewpoint.
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Well, don’t lose sleep or get too excited yet. We should, Laabs stresses, be realistic about the potential for brain implants, not least because they face the same tough regulatory pathways as pharmaceutical treatments. Our understanding of the brain is also still at an immature stage which means that even targeting diseases is an immense challenge because they manifest across the brain in no coherent way. “We don’t understand the brain virtually at all, and I say that as someone with a neuroscience PhD,” she laughs.
Yet brain implant tech is likely to be the way ahead, says Christof Koch, chief scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. Other less invasive treatment approaches have to date proven far too generalised, he explains. “There are millions of neurons at work in a piece of brain the size of a grain of rice, and boosting functionality requirestargeting certain neurons, doing nothing for some, and suppressing others.”
In other words, there’s a magnitude of precision required that we’re a long way off achieving given the relative crudity of today’s electrodes. That’s why those attempts to weed out signals to and from the brain in order to, say, control a wheelchair, have so far not succeeded outside of the lab.
“The patient smiles or moves, thus triggering a wave of other neuronal activity, and it all goes wrong,” Koch says, adding that said patient also requires the backing of a full clinical support team. Needless to say, this isn’t yet something you can use at home. “I love science fiction as much as the next guy but we’re dealing with the most complex piece of matter in the known universe. There’s a lot to learn.
Then there is the question of whether we even need brain-boosting implants, reckons Andrew Jackson, professor of neural interfaces at the University of Newcastle, UK. His work focuses on the development of pin-sized implants designed to restore injured nervous systems and head off epileptic seizures. He argues that we already readily boost our cognitive powers by outsourcing so much of the heavy lifting to external devices. What need will there be for enhanced memory when we can document our entire lives on our devices and social media, and look up anything we need to know on a search engine?
And what of public perception, or the ‘yuck factor’ as those in the brain implant world sometimes call it? The idea of compromising the skull’s integrity, causing bleeding and potential for infection and seizures is a hard sell. Risks like these are also partly to blame for why the science of brain implantation is so slow going.
As Jackson dryly puts it, “Scientists and engineers tend to get excited about the idea of controlling computers with our minds, but I’m not sure that’s a function that will get the man on the street excited about having a hole drilled in his head. The idea of being able to turn on your Tesla by thinking about it seems somewhat underwhelming.”
The problem for a lot of the current exploration of brain/computer interfacing, he believes, is that it has yet to find the ‘killer app’ that convinces of its need. The brain, as with the body, does what it does pretty well already, Jackson contends.
“Legs, for example, are straightforward mechanical things. They are so simple that you cannot imagine robots offering something better than good old-fashioned biology,” he says. “But millions of years of evolution have made legs really good at what they do, such that we wouldn’t expect many people to be ready to chop off their legs to have cutting-edge robotic ones.” Likewise, says Laabs, our hands and speech already make for great means of interfacing with the external world.
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Laabs notes that there is a big difference between technology that brings people back to some kind of ‘typical’ baseline and one that seeks to enhance beyond that baseline. “There are so many questions. What is the longevity of the tech, how is it paid for, and what are the ethical challenges? It’s extremely complex,” she says. Might an implanted brain be hackable? Would it be right that only a wealthy, risk-taking minority would have access to cognitive enhancement, at least initially, potentially creating a class of superior humans? Jackson suggests not, but notes that he could enhance your brain function right now, with a strong cup of coffee. “Does coffee also create ethical problems?” he asks, rhetorically.
That all said, these leading thinkers in neuroscience agree that invasive brain tech that allows the restoration of upper spine injuries may well become reality within a decade. They also agree that, while it may not be inevitable, brain implant tech that allows higher functionality seems at least very likely, eventually.
That doesn’t mean the prospect of implanting super-powers will cross over from science fiction to science fact. Don’t expect your great grandchildren to be able to communicate telepathically, or to go turbo in order to solve the great mysteries of the world in their lunch hour. Koch says there’s no evidence such kinds of enhancement would be possible. If they were, he notes, evolution would already have selected for them. What we can expect is improving what grey matter already does , on paper at least. “I don’t see why eventually we shouldn’t ultimately enhance our brain function,” says Koch. “After all, it’s just physics, not magic.”
This is an article from FARSIGHT: Visions of a Connected Future