Brain-Machine Interfaces – what? – when?

DARPA, US Department of Defense research arm, has for quite some time been running a Brain Machine Interface Program. This project first caught my attention when Technology Review wrote about Mind-Machine merger in May (subscription is required to read the full article).

Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI) are among my favorite subjects in the Wetware realm. The potential of BMI is incredible if it is well implemented, but it also opens a Pandora’s box of interesting philosophical and even more so ethical questions.

BMIs have been around in science fiction for decades. Movies like Total Recall, Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days and The Matrix are just a few examples. With a revolution in brain imaging technologies around 1990, brain research took a big leap forward and in the late 1990s we started seeing some implementations of BMIs, most memorably quadriplegic Jim Jatich (WiredTechnology Review) who could control a cursor on a computer screen with thought alone. Jatich later went on to use the same interface to control his so-called Freehand system, a system that stimulates and choreographs paralyzed muscles to make use of paralyzed limbs and is usually controlled using a shoulder controlled joystick. After some serious training, Jatich was able to use this combination to use his arms to use a fork and drink from a glass unassisted.

Other interesting BMIs include:

  • Connecting to a rat brains pleasure area, scientists have trained rats to be remote controlled. (The rat must be thinking: Ohhh – yeah, left! Ooooh, baby right, yeeessss, right! ;-).
  • Steven Potter’s robot controlled by neurons from a rats brain. This brain controls the robot and receives feedback from its mechanical body via electrodes that connect to the neurons. (see also previous Wetware entry)
  • And under DARPA’s aforementioned program among other things a BMI that aims to shorten fighter pilots response times and another that will enable mind-only control of rescue robots in harsh conditions
  • .

These are all very interesting projects, but I guess you’re already onto some of the ethical issues: If we can control a rat this way, will it lead to technology that allows us to control people to some extent as well? Are robots with biological brains living creatures and should therefore be treated differently? To what extent can the military “integrate” its technology with a fighter pilot or a soldier to enhance his or her abilities? Can the soldier deny or is it just a “standard” part of his equipment?

The projects mentioned above are all rather crude and there is without doubt quite some time until we’ll see BMIs in mainstream use. Take Jatich as an example. What is being done here is not reading his thoughts as he thinks “move the arm”. What has happened is that Jatich has practiced to be able to control a certain type of brainwaves that emit electric signals. These signals are then recorded from the scalp as so-called electroencephalograms (EEGs). The state of “real” thought reading technologies is nowhere really. A correspondence on a Slashdot discussion thread on related matters put the state of this art quite nicely: At the moment it’s a massively nontrivial task to tell if monkeys are looking at black or white. Do you think a computer [] could tell the difference between two basic thoughts?. This is an almost two year old comment but there is no sign that it is not still fully applicable.

So, even though I would like to be able to control my computer with thought alone (think typing text or sculpting a 3D-object by merely thinking about it), it is not reasonable in the near future. BT Exact’s technology timeline predicts “Thought recognition as everyday input means” in 2025, together with “Production, storage and use of antimatter” and just before our “Elimination by smart machines – [a la] Terminator” in 2030 (don’t be fooled by the examples I picked, the BT Exact whitepaper is a little more serious on average).

Other factors may delay BMI development as well. People are likely to show more than a little resistance to a technology that interferes or reads input directly from the nervous system and the ethical questions will no doubt stand in the way of funding and research in the field. See how the image of nanotechnology has been affected by Bill Joy’s account of the “gray goo” in “Why the future doesn’t need us” and Michael Crichton’s in “Prey: A Novel“. According to most nanoscientists, these accounts are ridiculous – but have nevertheless spurred movements of people that want to ban nanotechnology research and has without doubt already hurt funding in the field.

And as to prove my point, Wired today runs a story indicating that DARPA’s funding of the BMI program may already be in danger as a result of controversy around it and other high publicity DARPA projects.

Once again people who “know better” want to stop some scientific branch. Usually they have been proven wrong in the end, but even when they are right we are better off having done the research than making it an underground study by people with sometimes not-so-good intentions.

3 comments

  1. Question:Have you, or know of anyone, who has done research on;A human entering another humans brain/body?
    I would appreciate you emailing me back, hopefully with some contact information,
    Thank you.

  2. Brain-machine interfaces are still far from achieving anything like what you ask for. As you see from the article, the things people are doing right now are very primitive compared to what you describe.

    The closest thing might be Kevin Warwick’s experiments connecting his neural system to that of his wife (see e.g. this article). Warwick claims this allows them “exchange feelings”, but these are still very primitive connections.

    Regarding the possibility of entering another human’s body, I think you might be interested in some of the writings of Ray Kurzweil in “The Age of Spiritual Machines“. Even though it is more about extending one’s one brain and/or replacing with silicon chips, many of the same restrictions apply and one can easily claim that when a fully working two-way brain-machine interface has been implemented, connecting the output of one to the input of another would equal entering his/her body.

    Further info from Kevin Warwick: KevinWarwick.com

    Further info from Ray Kurzweil: KurzweilAI.net

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