Elon Musk is a very busy billionaire technology entrepreneur. In addition to his previous projects Tesla Motors and SpaceX, he has found time to start a new venture called Neuralink with the goal to connect human brains to computers. Beginning with an initial goal to treat intractable brain disorders such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease, he would like to eventually move on to “cosmetic brain surgeries to enhance cognitive function”. The first major hurdle is the actual brain computer interface (BCI).
I was attracted to medicine in the 1970s as a result of watching the TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man” where a fictitious astronaut named Steve Austin is injured in a test flight, losing an eye, both legs and right arm, and military doctors are able to rebuild him in to a human cyborg with better-than-human limb strength and eye sight. We are approaching 2020 and are only just now at the early stages of BCI technology minimally necessary to achieve such a goal.
One such example is Bill Kochevar, a man who sustained a spinal cord injury 8 years ago resulting in quadriplegia. Scientists as Case Western Reserve recently implanted a device in his brain, which decodes his brain waves and sends electrical signals to stimulators in his right arm and hand, allowing him to move his arm and hand simply by “thinking”.
Working on the sensory pathways, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have implanted a similar BCI in Nathan Copeland, who also sustained a spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia, though this BCI was connected in the sensory cortex and allowed Nathan to experience sensory input from a robotic hand touching objects.
Scientists at both universities stress that the technology is at the very early stages and we are nowhere near the practical application of a BCI that would permit a “Six Million Dollar Man”. But we do seem to be knocking on that door. If we can eventually implant a device in our brains that safely and reliably receives sensation to our brains from artificial sensors in a robotic hand or send signals from our brain to our own muscles (or a robotic arm), why stop there? There would be pressure to make the sensory input signals and motor output power “better than human”. I can imagine military applications where there might be pressure for able-bodied individuals to “volunteer” for the “cosmetic brain surgeries” that Elon Musk hopes to develop.
In fact, why bother with arms or legs at all? Once a safe BCI is available for the sensory and motor cortices (and perhaps later the visual and auditory cortices as well), we will be where Elon Musk hopes Neuralink will be in ten short years, not just restoring function but enhancing it.
I went into medicine to help people with quadriplegic injuries regain their lost function, and this technology is at the threshold of a significant breakthrough in that restoration. From a bioethics standpoint, I support it from a restoration standpoint. It is the enhancement aspect that worries me. Do we need an enhanced “Six Million Dollar BCI Man”?