Neural Implants Could Become a Lifesaving or Unethical Part of our Future

Sunday, 23 April 2017 - 3:12PM
Neuroscience
Artificial Intelligence
Sunday, 23 April 2017 - 3:12PM
Neural Implants Could Become a Lifesaving or Unethical Part of our Future
Elon Musk has been making headlines lately for his bizarre new project (we know, again) stemming from his new Neuralink company, which designs a "neural lace" implant we could hook into our brains as a computer interface. He claims it's the only way to compete with rising artificial intelligence, but his rhetoric leaves out some important other uses.

Dr. Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai (and host of the PBS show Science Goes to the Movies and Discovery's Superhuman Showdown) thinks there's less apocalyptic reasons to research it. She recently appeared at Silicon Valley Comic Con to host a panel called "Neural Prosthetics: The Future of the Human Brain" all about how said neural prosthetics could be lifesaving cures for certain medical conditions.

We've been messing around with this sort of tech for several years. While humans have their own means of controlling and suppressing thoughts in various ways - Berlin recounted stories of a dissociative identity disorder patient who was legitimately blind in one of her personalities, or a study that found subjects could force themselves to forget certain word associations after learning them - a technique known as "deep brain stimulation" has been even more effective.

For example, by drilling just a couple holes into the head of someone with Parkinson's disease, deep brain stimulation could be used to send signals into the patient's brain and essentially stop him from convulsing, although it would unfortunately resume once the machine was shut down.

And brain-implant systems like BrainGate have been succeeding in their quest to let paraplegic patients control robotic arms with only their minds: a micro-electrode array is inserted that picks up on the patient's brain signals whenever they try to move their arm. Eventually, the system learns to recognize signals associated with controlling arms, and can send those signals to robot arms. You can see that in action below:



Of course, whether or not you agree with Musk that humanity has to evolve into cyborgs, there's always still ethical concerns. Musk's neural lace has been tested successfully on mice, but testing brain-altering devices on humans will be a risky stage when there's still glitches to sort out. And of course, there's the philosophical question of "at what point do we stop being human?" If you were feeling pain, and you replaced one neuron with a silicon chip to stop it, and then another, how much of your brain would you need to replace before you stopped feeling a human pain?

The ethical portion of Berlin's panel was reminiscent of John Carpenter's horror flick The Thing - the monster was a parasite that would individually replace all of your cells, so at what point did you stop being human and just become "the thing"? So with big enough implants, at what point would you become more machine than person? Of course, if you came down with a life-threatening condition, then those questions may seem less important to you, but in a future where neural implants and deep brain stimulation will become more common, it may end up being used for more and more reasons.

Still - in the end, you're already controlling your own brain, so neural implants could just make that a more efficient process if used properly. Dr. Berlin ended the panel with a reminder: "You are your brain, but you also have a role in changing it."
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Neuroscience
Artificial Intelligence