Transhumanism is usually associated with augmenting our human bodies to become more like robots, whether it be through wearable technology, chips implanted in our hands to open doors or exoskeletons to increase physical strength. But what about transhumanism that goes beyond the physical body… into the mind?
In 2004, Google’s co-founder, Larry Page caused a stir by saying, “eventually we will have an implant in our brains, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer”. At the time, this landed a lot of criticism and there was an ethical uproar at the thought of our consciousness being plugged into a controlled external operating system. It seemed like a terrifying sci-fi idea.
Zoom forward to 2017 when this is no more a whacky idea, but an actual reality. Implantable Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs) are in development from organizations that include Elon Musk’s Neuralink, Facebook, and DARPA. These devices will modify the ways in which we communicate not only with each other, but also with technology. BMIs are said to overcome the communication limits of the human brain. When speaking, we have to think first, and we are then hindered by the speed we can speak to relay the information. Similarly, when writing, we first think of an idea but to get it out into black and white, we are limited by how fast we can write or type. BMIs are intending to change all this. Never again will you have a thought that goes out of your head before you have time to write it down. BMIs will enable communication in this unfiltered state of thought, directly to a computer programme.
Mark Zuckerburg described how, now, if we want to share an image or video from a holiday or experience, there is a time delay in taking the picture, uploading and sharing, but BMIs allow immediate transfer of the visuals, from what you are seeing live in your brain, straight to the computer. Now, this might seem a little bit pointless if all a BMIs are going to do is automatically create Instagram pictures from our brains. But BMIs are being tested and used in other fields that have much more meaning and power.
Brain-Machine Interfaces may be instrumental in the medical field, helping people with paralysis or amputated limbs, to move their bodies again. They work by translating the brain’s electrical activity into actions into a robotic limb or exoskeleton. Currently, it has been tested using an EEG cap. When the user thinks about grasping an object, this produces a pattern of brain activity which an algorithm on a computer identifies and translates into control signals which command the robotics hand or exoskeleton to carry out the movements.
This might seem like a long process but it happens almost immediately from thought to movement, and if a patient had the EEG cap replaced with a BMI brain implant, the limb would permanently work and respond in the same way as any other working body part giving the patient freedom and mobility back. An amazing find from this research was that those using an exoskeleton due to paralysis often found they regained some feeling and movement in their injured limbs, perhaps due to the process of rewiring the brain circulatory system through thought.
This same technology can also be expanded to everyday life, having the correct algorithms linked up to brain signals, with just a thought, we may be able to move any robotic objects purely with mind power.
An Austrian organization is using Brain-Machine Interface technology to help people in one of life’s most horrifying situations: being cognitively aware, but trapped in a body that can’t move or communicate. In a study of patients with locked-in syndrome, each hand was delegated as yes or no, patients were then asked a series of questions and the BMI would identify whether the brain was thinking of right or left, meaning yes or no. 9 out of 12 people were able to communicate using the BMI system, answering on average eight out of ten questions correctly. Additionally, two out of three patients with the most severe form of locked-in syndrome, called complete locked-in syndrome, could communicate using the system with about 80% accuracy. With some more development, if this technology was permanently implanted into the brain of patients with brain trauma, injury or degenerative diseases, through their mind power they may be able to regain the ability to communicate instantaneously, which in my opinion is worth supporting the development of BMI’s just for that reason alone.
A lot of new technologies at first glance seem like wild ideas that serve only for entertainment and novelty. But by looking into it a bit deeper you can often find the hidden potential in something that may seem ridiculous. In my opinion, Brain-Machine Interfaces are one of these.