Many of us know about 'Borg Hive Mind' from TV programs where the characters are linked through brain-to-brain or computer-to-brain interactions. However, this is more than a science fiction fantasy. The idea was contemplated seriously in the 2002 National Science Foundation report, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science. 'Techlepathy' is the word coined, referring to the communication of information directly from one mind to another (i.e. telepathy) with the assistance of technology.
Many research activities focus on neuro-engineering and the cognitive sciences. Many neuroscientists and bioengineers now work on:
- cognitive computing
- digitally mapping the human brain (see here and here); the mouse brain map has just been published
- developing microcircuits that can repair brain damage, and
- other numerous projects related to changing the cognitive abilities and functioning of humans, and artificial intelligence.
Journals exist for all of these activities -- including the Human Brain Mapping journal. Some envision a Human Cognome Project. James Albus, a senior fellow and founder of the Intelligent Systems Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology believes the era of 'engineering the mind' is here. He has proposed a national program for developing a scientific theory of the mind.
Neuromorphic engineering, Wikipedia says, "is a new interdisciplinary discipline that takes inspiration from biology, physics, mathematics, computer science and engineering to design artificial neural systems, such as vision systems, head-eye systems, auditory processors, and autonomous robots, whose physical architecture and design principles are based on those of biological nervous systems."
There are many examples.
Researchers from Harvard University have linked nanowire field-effect transistors to neurons. Three applications are envisioned: hybrid biological/electronic devices, interfaces to neural prosthetics, and the capture of high-resolution information about electrical signals in the brain. Research is advancing in four areas: neuronal networks, interfaces between the brain and external neural prosthetics, real-time cellular assays, and hybrid circuits that couple digital nanoelectronic and biological computing components.
Numenta, a company formed in 2005, states on its webpage that it "is developing a new type of computer memory system modelled after the human neocortex."
Kwabena Boahen, an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, has developed Neurogrid, "a specialized hardware platform that will enable the cortex’s inner workings to be simulated in detail -- something outside the reach of even the fastest supercomputers." He is also working on a silicon retina and a silicon chip that emulates the way the juvenile brain wires itself up.
Researchers at the University of Washington are working on an implantable electronic chip that may help to establish new nerve connections in the part of the brain that controls movement.
The Blue Brain project -- a collaboration of IBM and the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, in Lausanne, Switzerland – will create a detailed model of the circuitry in the neocortex.
A DNA switch 'nanoactuator' has been developed by Dr. Keith Firman at the University of Portsmouth and other European researchers, which can interface living organisms with computers.
Kevin Warwick had an RFID transmitter (a future column will deal with RFID chips) implanted beneath his skin in 1998, which allowed him to control doors, lights, heaters, and other computer-controlled devices in his proximity. In another experiment, he and his wife Irena each had electrodes surgically implanted in their arms. The electrodes were linked by radio signals to a computer which created a direct link between their nervous systems. Kevin’s wife felt when he moved his arm.
In his book I, Cyborg, Kevin Warwick imagines that 50 years from now most human brains will be linked electronically through a global computer network.
St. Joseph's Hospital in the United States has implanted neurostimulators (deep brain stimulators) using nanowires to connect a stimulating device to brain. A pacemaker-like device is implanted in the chest, and flexible wires are implanted in the brain. Electrical impulses sent from the 'pacemaker' to the brain are used to treat Parkinson’s, migraine headaches and chronic pain, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, improve the mobility of stroke victims, and curb cravings in drug addicts.
In 2003/2004 a variety of publications (see links below) reported on the efforts of professor Theodore W. Berger, director of the Center for Neural Engineering at the University of Southern California, and his colleagues, to develop the world's first brain prosthesis -- an 'artificial hippocampus' which is supposed to act as a memory bank. These publications highlighted in particular the use of such implants for Alzheimer’s patients.
The research program is proceeding in four stages: (1) tests on slices of rat brains kept alive in cerebrospinal fluid… reported as successful in 2004; (2) tests on live rats which are to take place within three years; (3) tests on live monkeys; and (4) tests on humans -- very likely on Alzheimer’s patients first.
The Choice is Yours
If these advancements come to pass, they will create many ethical, legal, privacy and social issues. For the artificial hippocampus we should ask: would brain implants force some people to remember things they would rather forget? Could someone manipulate our memory? What would be the consequence of uploading information (see my education column)? Will we still have control over what we remember? Could we be forced to remember something over and over? If we can communicate with each other through a computer what will be the consequence of a Global Brain?
It is important that people become more involved in the governance of neuro-engineering and cognitive science projects. We should not neglect these areas because we perceive them to be science fiction. We also need to look beyond the outlined 'medical applications.' If the artificial hippocampus works, it will likely be used for more than dealing with diseases.
I will cover brain-machine interfaces, neuro-pharmaceutical-based 'cognitive enhancement,' and neuroethics and the ethics of artificial intelligence in future columns.
Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist,
science and technology ethicist, disability/vari-ability
studies scholar, and health policy and science and technology
studies researcher at the University of Calgary. He is a
member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona
State University; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees
for the International Organization for Standardization section
TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the editorial team for
for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation;
Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled
People's International; and Member of the Executive
of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. He publishes the Bioethics,
Culture and Disability website, moderates a weblog for the International Network for Social Research on Diasbility, and authors a weblog on NBICS and its social implications.
- "World's first brain prosthesis revealed." Duncan Graham-Rowe. New Scientist. March 12, 2003.
- "Scientists develop 'brain chip.'" BBC News.
- "This is your brain on a microchip." Stefanie Olsen. C/NET News. May 11, 2006.
- "Artificial brain parts on the horizon." TWEAN News 14. May 30, 2006.
- Theodore Berger. University of Southern California.
- Center for Network Neuroscience, University of North Texas.
- "Blueprinting the human brain." Stefanie Olsen. C/NET News.
- "This is your brain online." Philip E. Ross. IEEE Spectrum.
- Allan Brain Atlas. Neuroscience Gateway/Nature.
- Bio-X-Bugle. Stanford University.
- The Blue Brain Project. Brain Mind Institute.
- "Chips coming to a brain near you." Lakshmi Sandhana. Wired News.
- Human Brain Mapping. Wiley InterScience.
- "Getting nanowires on the brain." Liz Kalaugher. Nanotechweb. August 31, 2006.
- "Couples' nervous system linked by implants in limbs." Simon Collins. June 7, 2004. The New Zealand Herald.
- "Brain prosthesis passes live tissue test." Helen Phillips. New Scientist.
- "Doctor’s specialty is re-wiring brain." Peggy Peck. CNN. March 22, 2006.
- Deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease. St. Joseph's Hospital, St. Paul, Minnesota.
- Press release: FDA Approves Cyberonics’ VNS Therapy System for Treatment-Resistant Depression (TRD). Cyberonics, Inc.
- "F.D.A. considers implant device for depression." Benedict Carey. May 21, 2005. The New York Times.
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©Gregor Wolbring, All Rights Reserved,
2006. Reprinted with permission.