The race to read your brain – Brinkwire
As you lie sedated on the hospital bed, a robot’s arm reaches out to the side of your head.
Suddenly, a sharp beam of light springs out of its finger as it starts to drill into your skull with an intense laser beam.
The operation is relatively quick and painless, and when you walk out of the room later that day, you don’t feel different in the slightest.
If it weren’t for the fact that you can now not only play video games or move a computer mouse but even communicate with others simply by using your thoughts, you might not even realise that a tiny microchip has been implanted in your skull.
This sounds like a dystopian plot from a futuristic sci-fi film. But it may not be fiction for much longer.
Astonishing developments in neuroscience are set to transform our understanding of the human mind, not only giving us an ability to read our thought processes, but even to ‘supercharge’ them by linking them to computers.
Is this proof that man and machine really can reach a perfect symbiosis?
Or is it a terrifying technological nightmare finally come to fruition? On paper, the latest breakthrough by scientists at the Kernel neurotechnology company in California certainly doesn’t sound that alarming.
Last week, it announced it had devised a helmet which can see and record brain activity.
Of the two brain-monitoring devices Kernel has created, the first — called Flux — monitors electromagnetic activity, while the second — Flow — measures blood movement by pulsing the brain with light.
Combined, the two helmets will allow scientists to analyse neurons, the brain cells that transmit nerve impulses, as they fire. And in doing so, Kernel has effectively pulled off a monumental technology shrinking exercise.
Until now, machines capable of doing this were neither portable nor cheap. They take up an entire room, cost around $1million and require highly-trained technicians to operate them.
The subject has to be strapped down, often in extremely cold temperatures and inside the machine — hardly ideal conditions.
Instead, the Kernel headwear, the size of a bicycle helmet with a web of sensors that sit around the skull, will cost around $5,000 and could be worn as the subject goes about daily life, so providing far more insight into thought processes.
The project was, for want of a better word, the brainchild of Bryan Johnson, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made $800million from digital payments system Braintree.
Using his windfall, he hired a team of experts, which included neuroscientists and specialists on microchips and lasers, to spend the past four years working on the helmet.
The details of the project have been kept secret — Kernel hasn’t even released a photo of its creation — but Mr Johnson, 42, claims it ‘triggers a new era of access to the mind and the ability to ask all sorts of new questions about ourselves’.
Whatever the full truth about his creation, it’s clear that in recent years mind-reading technology has become something of a holy grail in Silicon Valley.
Indeed, just this month, Elon Musk, the eccentric billionaire entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars and SpaceX rockets, announced that his own brain technology company, Neuralink, could be ready to put its first mind-reading implant into a human recipient ‘within a year’ — with the chip inserted directly into the skull.
The company, in which Musk has invested more than $100million, has discovered how to insert tiny wires into the brains of rodents and primates, and has been working on how to do it in people.
With both monkeys and rats, the animals were able to move a computer mouse across a screen just by thinking about it.
A so-called ‘neural lace’, a mesh of 3,000 electrodes attached to wires much thinner than a human hair, will be robotically inserted into the human brain via small holes bored into the skull by a laser.
(The Kernel team also initially considered a brain implant as it provides a much clearer connection to the neurons.
But then, perhaps wisely, decided people would far prefer to have something like a hat that they could put on and take off.)
These thread-like sensors pick up brain activity and, using a tiny processor with a wireless transmitter implanted behind the ear, exchange it with information on an external computer or smartphone.
Musk has dubbed Neuralink a ‘wizard hat for the brain’, an apt description given that his claims for what it could do would put it deep into the realm of what was previously considered the supernatural.
They include the ability to control computers and phones with one’s mind, to upload and download thoughts and to communicate with other people by telepathy.
Many who find such a prospect terrifying won’t be encouraged by Musk’s justification for such a device: he’s convinced that if we don’t pair our minds with machines, we risk being destroyed in the future by super-intelligent robots.
‘Ultimately, we will achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence,’ he has predicted.
If the idea of becoming a cyborg — part-man, partmachine — doesn’t fill you with joy, you can look forward to some more down-to-earth medical benefits from all this expensive research.
Both Johnson and Musk insist they want their inventions to advance medical science.
The former hopes people suffering from strokes or paralysis could use a Kernel helmet to communicate simply by thinking.
Musk claims the Neuralink implant could repair motor function in the paralysed, restore eyesight and hearing, and help those suffering memory loss through dementia or Alzheimer’s.
And just as digital devices such as Apple Watches and Fitbits now monitor wearers’ heart rates and the number of steps they take, there could soon be brain apps that can keep track of our creativity, happiness and honesty.
Kernel has already conducted research that shows its helmet can identify any song its wearer is listening to just by observing their brain and how it reacts.
Meanwhile, the University of Washington has built a ‘brain-tobrain network’ that allows three people to play a simple Tetrisstyle computer game with each other using just their thoughts.
However, now tech billionaires are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into reading our thoughts, we don’t need to read theirs to know that Silicon Valley rarely does anything purely out of the goodness of its own heart.
For while its breakthroughs are often initially hailed as socially beneficial, its predatory intentions — such as shamelessly snooping on our lives and ruthlessly manipulating users to get them hooked — tend to emerge later.
Take Facebook, which last year reportedly spent $1billion buying a company, CTRL-labs, which is researching mind-reading technology and has developed a wristband that is said to decode electrical signals from the wearer’s brain, allowing them to control a computer using their thoughts.
Given the social media giant’s dreadful record for surreptitiously harvesting the personal information of users, the news that it may soon have direct access to our brains has understandably filled many people with dread.
As well as logging everything we do online, do we really want Facebook’s unscrupulous multi-billionaire boss Mark Zuckerberg knowing what’s going on in our minds as well?
As for the likes of Musk and Johnson, their sceptics maintain that while it may be possible to soon recognise individual thoughts — such as a paraplegic’s desire to lift their arm — actually reading a train of thought is way beyond us for the moment.
Many of us will be only too happy to hear it.
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