The Fragility of Humanity
A doctor is solemnly sitting in the chair facing your hospital bed. He tells you gravely that during the accident, you broke your spinal cord, and your body was instantly paralyzed from the chest down. You realize that you will be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life and you will likely never be able to use your hands again. With mounting dread, you look down at your broken body and try to move your fingers, but of course, they can’t move.
For many victims of spinal cord injuries, ALS, and other neuronal diseases, this is the reality they must live with. Patients must simply accept the fact that no treatment is available for their condition. For many, they will never be able to live a normal life. However, recent advances in brain-computer interfaces are quickly changing that reality. We may soon live in a world where a broken spinal cord is no longer a debilitating, crushing injury, but one that is reparable and even negligible.
The Miracle of BCIs: A High-Level Introduction
A brain-computer interface (BCI), simply put, is a device that allows the user to give commands to machines using only their brain. The problem is that your brain is an incredibly complex system, made of around 86 billion neurons. Understanding what those neurons are trying to communicate and then sending that information to a machine is a really hard task. BCIs are able to do this in a two-step process:
- Signal Acquisition
Firstly, for a computer anywhere to do anything, it needs inputs. BCIs obtain these inputs directly from the brain, which they are constantly monitoring for electrical activity. They can identify which neurons are firing in the brain, from where, and at which intensity. This can be done using an invasive method (implanting the device directly into the body) or non-invasively by using an external device like an electroencephalogram (EEG).
- Signal Processing
In the next step, the data collected by the monitoring device is digitized and turned into familiar machine language (like binary). Then, AI and pattern-finding algorithms analyze that translated information to identify specific features that correspond to specific thoughts. Finally, the computer transmits a unique command based on which thoughts were identified.
How Exactly Does That Help?
Well, going back to the example before: when your spinal cord is damaged, that means the signal your brain sends through the central nervous system is lost before it can reach all parts of the body. You can still perfectly transmit signals from your brain, but that that signal is disrupted in the injured area of the spine — it never reaches its end destination.
With BCIs, we’re able to completely circumvent this issue. First, the monitoring device would read the patient’s brain activity in real-time. Then, it would send that data to an algorithm trained to identify the patterns associated with the moving of an arm. That algorithm, having identified those patterns, would relay that information wirelessly to a device below the injury zone in the spinal cord. This device would create electrical impulses that recreate the command to move the arm. Finally, this signal would travel unimpeded towards the previously paralyzed limb, allowing it to function normally.
This is amazing because, before BCIs, the thought that patients with paralysis might eventually be able to move their limbs with just their brains again was considered just short of a miracle. This technology is yet to be tested on humans but successful trials have worked on laboratory primates.
BCIs can also help amputees. Soon, it’s plausible that a robotic prosthetic connected to a BCI in a patient’s brain might eventually be able to completely restore fine motor function to their hands. This technology has the power to change millions of lives.
The Brain-Computer Revolution
So far we’ve only looked at the medical applications of BCIs, but these incredibly powerful devices have so much more potential than that. These electronics are going to revolutionize the world. Here’s how:
We already know that BCIs can read brain signals and transmit those to machines, but reciprocally, BCIs can also receive signals from machines and communicate those to the brain. Theoretically, if I had a BCI and you also had one, we could communicate using only our minds. That’s telepathy — and it’s crazy to think about.
If we took that one step further and connected our brains to the internet, then humanity would no longer be an unorganized collection of individuals, but a superspecies. We would have a collective consciousness in which you would be able to communicate with anyone in the world, at any time. I could just think of whatever knowledge I wanted to know and get it instantly from the internet… and why stop there.
If humans could download knowledge, that means that they could download memories as well. This would take the expression “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” to a whole other level. Humans would be able to feel emotions as if they were really that other person. They would be able to share memories like skydiving, or surfing, or going to space — people could open-source their entire lives for others to download if they wanted.
Moreover, if we can now fully communicate with machines and they can send data they are receiving back to us, then we would be able to experience the world in ways we never could’ve before. I could live outside my body, and experience things as a machine would. I would be able to see in infrared, radar, and ultrasound. Think about that! We can’t even imagine what that will be like now, but one thing’s for sure — when it comes, it will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
The Next Frontier in Science
BCIs are increasingly being dubbed the “Next Frontier in Science” as the human brain is one of the last few mysteries that we have yet to uncover. Once we can understand exactly how the brain works and write neural code like we write software today, the world will never be the same. The possibilities that BCIs bring are endless and the implications are both incredibly exciting and incredibly scary.
We can fear BCIs, we can love them — the only thing we can’t do is ignore them or ban them. If we aren’t the ones on the cutting edge of technology, developing it responsibly and ethically, then someone else will — someone less ethical, less responsible, and with more sinister intents. It is up to us to use BCIs to change the world for the better.