The future of brain implants is almost here. Are you ready for this?
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The future of brain implants is almost here. Are you ready for this?

The Neuralink company is on track to begin human trials of its implant technology and it seems likely that brain implants will be ready for human use sometime this century, sooner rather than later. What does this mean to you?

What is a BCI or brain-computer interface?

The name "brain-computer interface" already tells you most of what you need to know, but it's essentially a direct communication pathway between neurons in your brain and a computer system.

BCIs have been around for a long time and have been used successfully to allow, for example, paralyzed people to control robotic arms with a mere thought. BCIs are distinct from devices that, for example, read signals from your muscles or are connected to nerves outside your brain, but these technologies are obviously related to BCIs.

In the case of the Neuralink prototype, it consists of incredibly thin electrodes called "neural wires" which are installed by a robotic system, along with a connected Link device. Power is supplied to the wireless link device without the need for any skin breakage. Older BCI devices, such as those made by BrainGate, require a port that connects the brain to the outside world. Thus, a completely sealed implant, such as the type promised by Neuralink, would already be a big step forward.

Medical Implants vs Elective Implants

A man playing the ukulele with a prosthetic hand.

At this early stage, Neuralink is presenting its implant as a next-generation medical device. Provide a link between different parts of the brain and computer systems that can help restore visual, auditory, motor and cognitive functions. It's important to understand that Neuralink is trying to perfect the connection, not the computing technology that will actually deliver those solutions, but those kinds of medical applications are part of the roadmap.

There is no way to underestimate the importance of BCI technologies that could help people with profound neurological conditions, and no one is seriously opposed to this application. However, in the long term, the idea behind implants such as the Neuralink example is that people who are otherwise perfectly healthy will choose to have a BCI installed.

When moving a device like a BCI from a lifesaving or restorative medical device to an elective operation, the considerations change. After all, no operation is trivial or without risk.

Benefits of Augmentation and BCI

The artificial augmentation of humans is a rapidly advancing field of science. There are now prosthetic limbs that can move in response to signals from nerves or remaining muscle tissue. There are even limbs that can transmit sensations such as touch to the brain!

Given that technology is limited only by the laws of physics (and how smart we are), it stands to reason that some of these spare parts will eventually be better than the meaty morsels that were there at the origin. Many cyberpunk fictions have been written for this purpose, but the reality of this situation may be closer than most people realize.

If you could operate your devices using only the power of thought, pilotering a drone as if it were an extension of your body, or beaming virtual reality experiences directly into your brain, how many people would line up for the procedure?

It's a question you may have to answer yourself as the 21st century progresses, or it may be a question your children will grapple with. This could be an especially difficult choice when people who choose to have implants may have cognitive advantages that make them preferable as employees or enable them to achieve more than those who refuse implants.

From cybersecurity to cybersecurity

It can be disastrous to have a malware attack on your computer or to have one of your online accounts compromised. But that would be chemin worse if someone has hacked into your brain implant, not just from a privacy perspective, but because there's a malicious actor in your brain. Assuming that BCIs will eventually provide information to our brains rather than just reading neural activity, this opens up the possibility of true brain hacking.

Does this seem far-fetched? Well, apart from the relatively crude "hacking" that psychology makes possible (and which marketers enthusiastically use), there are devices that can already literally change your mind.

For example, by using transcranial magnetic stimulation, it is possible to change the way people think about moral decisions. Having a device in your brain that can directly stimulate your neurons could stimulate them to make you see or hear things, influence your emotional state, or, at some late future time, literally put thoughts in your head. These are all questions that will have to be seriously addressed, but the fact remains that there is no such thing as perfect security.

This is especially true because a BCI is only useful if it can connect to things outside the brain, and this is also true for current implants, which have wireless technology that doctors can use to get diagnostic information or change settings. This is why hackers were able to place malware on pacemakers.

The danger of implant obsolescence

If you think it's intense to feel the pressure to buy a new iPhone every two or three years, consider having a brain implant so outdated that you'll have to undergo another surgery to upgrade it. While we have no doubt that BCI designers will try to make their systems as scalable as possible, the pace of technology development makes this inevitable.

What about non-invasive BCIs?

A doctor attaching electrodes to a patient's head.

Right now, putting electrodes in a person's brain offers by far the most accurate and information-rich way to find out what's going on in your gray matter, but it might not the only way. Non-invasive BCIs, like the one developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, can read information from your brain without anyone poking it. These technologies are also on a development trajectory of their own and perhaps one day will be as good as implantable BCIs, which would make them a preferred solution for various reasons.

Would you like to get a brain implant?

Assuming a product like the Neuralink is safe and works as advertised, would you let someone drill a hole in your skull to install one? How many benefits would you need from such a device to make the invasion of your neurology worth it? None of us will really know until we have to make a choice, but it's a good idea to start thinking about it now because that day is approaching.

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