Over the past twenty years, neuroscientists have been quietly building a revolutionary technology called BrainGate that wirelessly connects the human mind to computers and it just hit the world stage. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have entered the race with goals of figuring out how to get computer chips into everyone’s brains.
The attention of Musk and Zuckerberg means the potential for giant leaps forward. But the question no one seems to be asking is whether our dependence on machines and technology has finally gone too far. Countries annually celebrate their independence from other countries, but it now seems we should start asking deeper questions about our personal independence.
60 Minutes recently ran a piece showing how engineers are using what scientists have learned about the brain to manipulate us into staying perpetually addicted to our smartphones. The anxiety most of us feel when we are away from our phone is real: During the 60 Minutes piece, researchers at California State University Dominguez Hills connected electrodes to reporter Anderson Cooper’s fingers to measure changes in heart rate and perspiration. Then they sent text messages to his phone, which was out of his reach, and watched his anxiety spike with each notification.
The segment revealed that virtually every app on your phone is calibrated to keep you using it as often and as long as possible. The show made an important point: a relatively small number of Silicon Valley engineers are experimenting with, and changing in a significant way, human behavior and brain function. And they’re doing it with little insight into the long-term consequences. It seems the fight for independence has gone digital.
While smartphone dependency — and its effects on the brain — is in itself a cause for concern, it’s merely the next logical step in computing, and that logic is becoming increasingly worrisome. We’re standing on the precipice of major developments in what scientists call brain computer interfaces (BCIs, sometimes called brain machine interfaces or BMIs). BCIs are electronic microchips that are embedded into the brain to literally connect our minds to computers — basically, brain chips.
Before you dismiss it as out of hand, consider two things: First, computers have been creeping closer to our brains since their creation. What started as large mainframes became desktops, then laptops, and now tablets and smartphones that we hold only inches from our faces. And secondly, brain computer interfaces already exist, and have for almost twenty years. I watched on the sidelines during the development of one of the earliest versions in the late 1990s, when it was only a handful of professors at Brown University. I was a graduate student studying the brain, but even with that background, I had trouble believing brain chips could be anything but science fiction.
Now, brain chips are going mainstream in a huge way. We’ve recently learned that no less than the likes of both Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are deeply involved in developing BCIs. Imagine using Facebook without typing, or driving a Tesla with only your mind. Zuckerberg hasn’t revealed many details yet, but he has said that he envisions a platform that “lets you communicate using only your mind.” We know that about a year ago, Zuckerberg hired Regina Dugan, former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to run his company’s experimental technologies division, known as Building 8. The division now has 60 full-time scientists and engineers and hundreds of millions in funding. That’s a big commitment of resources that could produce rapid advancements in technology.
Elon Musk’s vision goes beyond Zuckerberg’s (or at least beyond what Zuckerberg has said publicly). While Zuckerberg has described external brain sensors that would allow you to “type” 100 words per minute with your mind, Musk wants to merge brains and computers much more deeply, through a brain chip that both sends and receives information. The possibilities of brain computer interfaces are both exciting and frightening. The ability to communicate with others via thought, for example, is exciting, but giving others the ability to read your mind is frightening. Controlling a light switch or driving a car with one’s mind is exciting; the potential of others controlling your mind is frightening. It might be cool to have a perfect memory but it would be terrifying if your memory could be hacked. Leveraging artificial intelligence to make us smarter would be great; creating artificial intelligence that could grow much smarter and more powerful than us is the stuff of nightmares.
That last fear has raised heavy eyebrows, from Steven Hawking to Bill Gates and even Elon Musk. Yet Musk has entered the AI race perhaps without fully realizing it: brain computer interfaces will inevitably bring us closer to artificial intelligence. Musk argues that for us to compete with AI, we need to have some of our own machine intelligence, but has he fully considered the cost? What few understand is that the path to AI is through creating artificial brains, not “artificial intelligence.” The machine intelligence we create will be real. We are already in the process of digitally mapping the human brain. Fully charting the map will require data, which will ultimately come from recording the brain through brain chips.
To understand the significance of brain chips, it would behoove us to take a quick look at where we started. I am chairman of BrainGate, Inc., the company that holds many of the relevant patents on brain computer interfaces. I first encountered BrainGate in 1998 as a graduate student at Brown University. A handful of neuroscientists under the leadership of professor John Donoghue had invented technology that could connect a computer chip to the human mind, allowing it to act as a remote control to other devices. It was a clunky system that required brain surgery and wires connecting your skull to a mainframe, but it worked. They called the technology BrainGate.
The possibilities were unbelievably exciting, and the Brown team set out to turn BrainGate into a business. They raised a pile of money, pushed the science and technology further, and eventually took the company public under the auspicious name of Cyberkinetics. Fast forward a decade and Cyberkinetics continued to show promise but no profits. BrainGate had entered pre-clinical trials, proved viability with human patients, and showed real signs of potential success. By 2008, a BrainGate patient controlling a wheelchair with her mind was featured on 60 Minutes, but it was clear that commercialization was still far off.