The age of cyborgs: How brain-computer interfaces could change the world

Humans and computers together as one.

Writer: Denis Duagi
Editor: Alexandra Gilbert
Artist: Emma-Maia Smith

We already have our first legally-recognized cyborg, Neil Harbisson, who wears an implant that helps him overcome his colour blindness. So if artificial “eyes” can be designed for the colour-blind, what about implants that can give us super senses? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but let’s see what we can do with a brain-computer interface. 

Brain Computer Interfaces, or BCIs, are a set of electrodes that are superficial or implanted into the brain, which translate neuronal information into commands, such as controlling a computer or a robotic limb. BCIs can give your brain the ability to communicate wirelessly with the Cloud, with a computer, or with the brain of anyone who wears a similar interface. Paralyzed patients can now control robotic arms or even shop on Amazon with a tablet, using their mind. Elon Musk’s Neuralink is similarly dedicated to developing BCIs for paralysed patients, deadlined for 2020. 

While this may seem very futuristic, BCI technology has been commercially available for a few years now. EEGSmart has recently launched a mind-controlled drone, which uses hands-free controls via a headset, that contains electroencephalography and electromyography sensors.

But this neurotech gets even crazier. There’s been jaw-dropping claims in a recent study that reported technology is capable of transferring knowledge from one brain to another. According to a press release, the team measured the brain activity patterns of professional pilots, and then transmitted these patterns into novice subjects, as they learned to pilot an airplane in a flight simulator. The technology utilised in this study, called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, activated specific regions of the brain involved in motor control and decision making. The study showed that the people who received tDCS were able to learn the new skills much faster. Other than heightening creativity and learning processes with some electrical stimulation, there are more clinical applications to BCIs. Depression, anxiety, chronic pain and tremors in Parkinson’s are the prime candidates for targeted stimulation therapy. Who knows, perhaps in the future we will be able to download knowledge directly into our brains like in the Matrix.

Embedding tiny computers into people’s brains seems like a promising way to help ourselves keep up with the advances being made in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In fact, during an interview, Elon Musk shared that the ultimate goal for the Neuralink brain implant is for people to achieve symbiosis with AI. 

While simultaneously being exciting and scary, there are privacy and other ethical considerations associated with this technology. In terms of privacy, with a window into your mind, your thoughts are easily accessible and could be stolen or manipulated. Imagine having to pay premium for an ad-free brain! 

One of the biggest ethical concerns is the loss of autonomy, when we will not be able to choose which of our thoughts are turned into actions. For instance, if the BCI  executed inappropriate or harmful actions that were not intended. 

Looking on the bright side, this technology can help more people overcome limitations caused by injury or disease. It is possible that BCIs will get as far as resolving brain disorder and damage with a chip.

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