Dear Neurotechnology, Can We Trust You?

Image from Unsplash by Bret Kavanaugh

What is Neurotechnology?

Neurotechnology is a combination of methods and instruments used to track and/or control brain activity. By establishing a connection to the nervous system, engagement with the brain is possible. The specifics of how it works don’t matter right now. Just know, it places electrodes, an electrical conductor, on the surface of the head. By placing them there, they can pick up on the electrical fields generated by the brain. This is what we call a Brain-computer interface (BCI).

For example, we can place electrodes on the surface of the head using an electrode cap. You can also place electrodes within the brain. Placing electrodes in the brain allows for precise readings and manipulation. But this requires an invasive surgical process. So that patients don’t need surgery, companies use electrode caps.

Image from Compumedics Neuroscan

The Uses of BCIs

The possibilities with BCI are endless. Companies are using BCIs to:

  1. Treat epilepsy

By monitoring brain activity 24/7, Neuropace has come up with a solution to control seizures. Once they detect unusual brain activity, their product can respond within milliseconds. By responding to this activity, your brainwaves go back to normal. As time goes on, seizures will decrease as BCIs collect more and more data.

Image from ScienceDirect.com

2. Restore vision

By implanting a device within the brain, BCIs can convert images picked up by a video camera into electrical pulses within the brain. This allows a patient to see patterns of light. These patterns of light allow blind people to distinguish objects from light and dark. Eventually, BCIs will restore vision to blind patients.

Image from News from Brown — Brown University

3. Communicate using our thoughts

By reading and recording brain activity, the University of Washington in Seattle could use BCIs to send “thoughts” from one person to another. To achieve this, they receive signals one at a time from one person. They then transfer those signals to another person. Once that person receives the signal, they will see a glowing dot in their sight.

We can’t send actual messages like texts to each other yet. But do we really want to communicate our thoughts to each other?

I mean, I wouldn’t want people to know what I’m thinking… And what if I have intrusive thoughts? What if I send the wrong thoughts to someone else? Yikes.

Neuralink

Ah yes. Neuralink. Founded by the controversial Elon Musk. His intentions with BCIs are genius — but maybe not so ethical. Let’s see what Elon’s plans with Neuralink are, shall we?

Curing Neurodegenerative Diseases

As their technology improves over time, Neuralink hopes to access more brain areas and new kinds of neural information. This could treat various neurological disorders, restore sensory and movement function, and expand our interactions with everything in the world.

Connecting Thoughts to Actions

By allowing people to depict their thoughts through art, text, photography, etc., people won’t need to depend on others. There will be no need for an assistant to perform small activities.

Using your thoughts to control prosthetic arms and legs is a HUGE example. People can pick up items with a prosthetic arm. This means patients with amputated arms won’t need someone else to do the work for them.

Yet, the conversion from thoughts to actions is not exactly accurate as of now. For instance, let’s take two boxes: Box A and Box B. A patient might think of placing a block in box A using a robotic arm and BCI. But the BCI won’t always read these thoughts accurately. It might cause the robotic arm to place a block in box A.

So Neuralink is working towards gaining complete control over robotic arms using BCIs. This year, Musk announced his goal was to sync our brains with artificial intelligence (AI). This will enable humans to control computers, prosthetic limbs, and other machines, using our thoughts.

Merging Our Brains with AI

Image from Vice

Speaking of syncing AI to our brains, Musk announced connecting our minds with AI to treat brain diseases and injuries. By implementing a chip into our brains, he hopes to treat many brain diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and paralysis.

As of now, however, Neuralink’s mission is to design chips to interpret data activity. By gaining enough data, they’ll be able to communicate with neuroscientists and engineers to allow the brain to communicate with a computer system.

So, what happens when they get enough data?

Once Neuralink gains enough data on the brain, they can control our primary motor cortex. Controlling our primary motor cortex means they can control our body’s motor functions. By doing so, Neuralink plans to establish a connection between a paralyzed patient and an interface device. The patient can think about moving an object, and the interface device will interpret the patient’s brain activity to move an object accordingly.

Should we install this technology?

If your brain can signal an implant within your brain, it is feasible to create a chip that can also send signals back to the brain. This means sending output from the chip to the brain using stimulation such as electric stimulation.

An example of electrical stimulation would be in epilepsy treatment using BCIs.

Before, I said a BCI can respond to unusual brain activity. But how?

First, the BCI detects and predicts a seizure through unusual brainwave patterns. Then, the BCI can send electrical stimulation to various areas of the brain. Finally, the BCI controls the seizure and seizures are less likely to occur.

It’s only possible to control these seizures by obtaining data from the brain. By obtaining data from the brain, it’s also possible to manipulate the brain using this data. If the data falls into the wrong hands, humans can intercept the brain with the right technology.

Especially today, where cyber hackers can get data easily if there is even a slight issue in a security system. Having an electric stimulation controlled by a hacker… Scary, right?

Maybe it’s not as scary as I’m playing it out to be.

Our minds are unique. Our brain data is unique. Our thoughts only belong to ourselves.

This means that even if a master hacker steals our data, they might not know what to do with that data. Sure, they might know everything about cybersecurity. But do they know anything about the brain? Well, if they’re focusing all their time on trying to find a way around a security system, they probably won’t have time to study the brain. We must rely on our cybersecurity network to stall these hackers enough to prevent any data leaks!

Since electric stimulation in epilepsy treatment using BCIs only responds to unusual brain activity, it most likely won’t respond to a hacker trying to force an electrical shock to the brain.

With the enormous amount of data that we can extract from the brain, there’s a lot that scientists must do to decipher the data. We’ll never know what someone might do with our brain data. We must put our trust into companies that focus on BCI if we associate ourselves with this technology.

But we’ve been trusting our doctors with information about our bodies for as long as we can remember. So why not BCI companies? If both businesses gain FDA approval, then surely they’re safe? All we know is that BCIs could solve brain disorders. That is if people will give up information about their brains.

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Innovator at TKS hoping to revolutionize the science behind treatment for mental health issues.

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Jeffrey Huynh

Jeffrey Huynh

Innovator at TKS hoping to revolutionize the science behind treatment for mental health issues.

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