Mind-reading fears as brain science advances

BrainGate: Patients are already able to type solely with their minds.

Should we worry if computers know what we are thinking? Huge advances in the science of brain-computer interfaces are helping disabled people. But they also open a window to our secrets.

In a well-hidden location somewhere in the US, a team of neurologists, neuroscientists, engineers, computer scientists, neurosurgeons and mathematicians are hugging and cheering.

Dennis Degray, aged 66, who is paralysed from the neck down, has just sent a text message to a friend’s mobile phone without any visible movement at all. He did it by using his thoughts.

The text reads: “You are holding in your hand the very first text message ever sent from the neurons of one mind to the mobile device of another. U just made history.”

The ability to connect the human brain directly to a computer, so that thoughts can be transmitted directly to a machine, has long been a dream of advanced research and science fiction.

Now, quite swiftly, the dream is becoming reality.

The team that enabled Degray to send his text are known as BrainGate. They come from four major US universities and the US Department of Veterans Affairs which is desperate to help its wheelchair-bound soldiers.

Dozens of other teams are working in the same area as they race to capitalise on a potentially huge market.

Recently, Elon Musk entered the industry, announcing a £21m investment in his new business Neuralink. And Regina Dugan presented Facebook’s plans for a game-changing, brain-computer technology that would allow for quicker digital communication between friends.

If it works, says Musk, everyone will have access to “a machine extension of yourself in the form of your phone and your computer and all your applications…you will have more power, more capability than the President of the United States had 30 years ago.”

Musk says the procedure would be akin to laser eye surgery: quick, painless and increasingly low risk. Very thin threads of flexible biocompatible polymer material studded with electrodes would be “sewn in” to your brain by a robot to avoid piercing micro-vessels.

Ethical mind-field

We are entering a dangerous place, warn many observers. Take brain-washing, for instance. If computers get into our heads, what’s to stop them erasing memories and implanting new ideas? Or, lower down the scale, what about mind-reading? If our thoughts can be read and recorded every moment, we will have abolished privacy. Stripped of privacy, humans become laboratory rats, biological machines, stripped of joy.

Alarmist nonsense, say those involved in the science. These rather hysterical accusations crop up whenever big advances are made. People thought x-ray machines were unethical for similar reasons. Look how many lives they save today! Mind-machine interfaces will massively improve conditions for many disabled people. They may make life far better for millions of others too. We should celebrate the science — not fear it.

You Decide

  1. Are you excited by the idea of brain-computer interfaces?
  2. “Progress is always scary. But it is our human destiny to move forwards.” Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Is mind-reading possible without a machine? Split into pairs. Take it in turns to imagine a number under 10. Imagine projecting it on to a large wall. See if your partner can “read” the number.
  2. Make a list of five scientific advances from history that must have seemed extremely scary at the time. Explain why you think each of them would have aroused suspicion.

Some People Say...

“Sharp distinctions between man and machine will no longer exist thanks to the existence of cybernetically-enhanced humans and uploaded humans.”

Ray Kurweil, US inventor and futurist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Dennis Degray was able to send the text message because he had two tiny squares of silicon, with protruding metal electrodes, surgically implanted in his motor cortex (the part of the brain that controls movement). These recorded the activity in his neurons for translation into external action. By imagining moving a joystick with his hand, he was able to move a cursor to select letters on a screen. With the power of his mind, he has also bought products on Amazon and moved a robotic arm to stack blocks.
What do we not know?
Who owns the brain data and what is it being used for. And what about “brainjacking”, where a third party could gain control of the system and modify it in ways the brain’s owner hasn’t consented to? For example, pacemakers (fitted in the body to help control irregular heart rhythms) have been hacked before.

Word Watch

Neurologists
Specialists in the branch of medicine or biology that deals with the anatomy, functions and organic disorders of nerves and the nervous system.
BrainGate
A brain implant system built and previously owned by Cyberkinetics, currently under development and in clinical trials, designed to help those who have lost control of their limbs, or other bodily functions.
Elon Musk
Technology entrepreneur, investor, and engineer. He founded SpaceX, Tesla, Neuralink, The Boring Company, OpenAI and PayPal.
Regina Dugan
US businesswoman, inventor, technology developer and government official. She was the first female director of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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