Miracle or menace? The rise of the brain chip

Man machine: Artist Neil Harbisson is implanted with a chip that lets him hear colours. © Neil Harbisson

Could neural implants change your identity? Yesterday, an entrepreneur invested millions in the technology. But scientists and philosophers are anxious about potential consequences.

The patient lay motionless before the screen. Tentatively, he imagined the letter H. Less than a second later, it appeared on the screen. An E followed, then two Ls and an O, each showing up quicker than the last. After years of silence, he could finally communicate with the world.

Last week, neuroscientists revealed a miraculous scientific breakthrough. A paralysed man had been taught to write with his mind. Assisted by a chip implanted in his premotor cortex, he managed to think whole sentences into existence at a rate of 90 letters per minute.

This sounds like the stuff of science fiction. And it is: from William Gibson’s classic novel Neuromancer to the brand new TV series Made for Love, brain implants have often captured our imagination.

Real neural chips have been around since at least 1997, when the US Food and Drug Administration granted approval to a brain-stimulating device to combat Parkinson’s Disease.

The brain-computer interface market is growing by the month. In February, Elon Musk’s company Neuralink used a chip to let a chimpanzee play a computer game. Yesterday, fellow tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel invested $10m in a rival company.

An estimated 200,000 people worldwide now live with a neural implant. For some, the plants have become an integral part of their identity. The artist Neil Harbisson, who was born severely colourblind, uses a head-mounted antenna that transmits colours into sounds. In 2010 he co-founded the Cyborg Society, which aims to help others embrace cybernetics.

There is plenty of evidence that brain chips can affect a person’s personality. Take the story of Rita Leggett, who was implanted with a device that warned her of epileptic seizures. She believes the chip changed her personality, explaining in an interview: “we became one.” For philosopher Frederic Gilbert, Leggett and her implants had fused into “a new person… a symbiosis of machine and mind”.

Some see this as a cause for concern. Could the chips become more powerful than their hosts? One of Leggett’s fellow patients claimed her implants gave her “no control”.

According to the ethicist S Matthew Liao, neuro-technologies could “radically change our sense of where we come from, what we do and, importantly, who we are”.

Further questions were raised by a 2013 MIT experiment that saw false memories successfully inserted into mice. Memories help form our identity. If they are replaced by fakes, would our identity change as well? And if chips can control what we remember, could they learn to control our minds?

Others believe we should not be too alarmed. Neurologist Judy Illes says: “I don’t believe these interventions change who a person is, who they fundamentally perceive themselves to be.”

Besides, the vast majority of implants are developed for medical purposes. Leggett’s chip gave her control over a life-ruining illness. Perhaps it was this new ability, rather than the chip itself, that really changed her life.

Could brain chips change your identity?

No brainer

Undoubtedly, say some. Our identity is always in flux. It is subtly shaped by the things we experience: our cultural heritage, our tastes and interests, our conversations with friends. Even if neural implants are not a sinister mind-control scheme, it is inevitable that they will cause some degree of change in how we perceive ourselves. After all, almost everything does.

Of course not, say others. While our identity develops through our lives, it retains an unchanging core. We go through numerous shifts — of age, relationships, hobbies — but our unique selfhood stays the same. Brain chips might cause some similar minor readjustments, or trigger long-term changes in our health or capabilities. But they do not change who we really are.

You Decide

  1. Would you implant a chip that could alter your personality in return for lifelong perfect health?
  2. Is a technologically-enhanced person less than 100% human?

Activities

  1. In groups of three, design and produce an advertisement for a mind control chip, persuading people to give it a try.
  2. In pairs, devise an ethical code for scientists working on brain chip technology, explaining what rules they should and should not follow.

Some People Say...

“An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience.”

James Baldwin (1924 — 1987), African-American novelist, essayist and civil rights activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Thinkers have long speculated about mind control. In his Meditations, French philosopher René Descartes introduced the idea of an evil demon able to present a completely illusionary view of the world, controlling our perceptions. Contemporary American philosopher Gilbert Harman has reformulated this idea as the “brain in a vat”, in which we are a disembodied organ tricked by a mad scientist. Both scenarios are used as arguments for scepticism about our ability to know the world.
What do we not know?
There is furious debate over whether brain chips will represent the next major technological shift. “The ability to interrogate and manipulate electrical activity in the human brain,” writes neuroscientist R Douglas Fields, “promises to do for the brain what biochemistry did for the body.” Others dispute are less sure, arguing that brain implants have limited, specialised functions and are often difficult to run safely outside laboratory conditions.

Word Watch

Premotor cortex
An area in the front of the brain that connects to the spinal cord. Neuroscientists do not fully understand its functions.
Neuromancer
Gibson’s novel pits a computer hacker against artificial intelligence.
Made for Love
A series about a woman trying to escape her husband, who has implanted a chip that combines their minds.
Neural
Relating to the nerves or the nervous system, which is controlled by the brain.
Brain-computer interface
Neural chips work by transmitting brain signals to a computer through electrical signals.
Cyborg
A term describing a being that has both organic and mechanical elements built into their bodies.
Cybernetics
A theoretical approach that studies communications and systems in machines and living things.
Epileptic seizures
Sudden, uncontrolled disturbances in the brain, caused by the neural disorder epilepsy.
Symbiosis
From the Greek word for living together, a symbiosis is a close interaction between two organisms.
MIT
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a prestigious American university specialising in science and technology.

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