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01/02/2018

The Brain and The Internet

The current Technology Review contains an article by Adam Piore featuring Dr. Eric Leuthardt, who, as the title claims, is “The [Neuro]Surgeon Who Wants to Connect You to the Internet with a Brain Implant”. After spending Christmas with my married millennial children, I am convinced there are no further connections required. But Dr. Leuthardt isn’t satisfied with clumsy thumbs and smartphones – he wants a hard-wired, direct brain-to-Internet solution. The article nicely covers both the history and current “state-of-the-art” technology of brain-machine interfaces, as well as the barriers we have yet to solve before Dr. Leuthardt’s dream of a brain-internet connection is a reality. I encourage a full read of the entire article as backdrop to the questions I will focus upon for the remainder of this blog entry. Dr. Leuthardt’s research partner, Gerwin Schalk, a computer scientist focused on decrypting the vast volume of brain electrical signals from the current implants used, sets the stage with the following quote:

“What you really want is to be able to listen to the brain and talk to the brain in a way that the brain cannot distinguish from the way it communicates internally, and we can’t do that right now,” Schalk says. “We really don’t know how to do it at this point. But it’s also obvious to me that it is going to happen. And if and when that happens, our lives are going to change, and our lives are going to change in a way that is completely unprecedented.”

What would it mean for us to develop and implement a brain interface separate from our current physical senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching? What Schalk and Leuthardt want is to develop a brain interface that is as good at receiving sensory input as our current five senses and equally as good at affecting our physical environment as our current voice, arms and legs. But it doesn’t have to stop there (and in fact, I do not believe it would). If the brain cannot distinguish data input via these new artificial links from data input via “normal” physiology, why not insert novel visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile or motor information as well as linkages amongst these – the experiences of which become actual memories. How could one tell memories in which you had actually participated from ones that were virtual? Would it matter? Anyone had any trouble with unwanted Internet ads or computer viruses lately?

For the record, I am generally all-in for most replacement artificial body parts, such as heart, lung, skin, kidney, liver and limbs (allowing for the bioethical concerns generally voiced on this blog). I am admittedly concerned as we develop technologies that start accessing (and potentially augment or replace) portions of the human brain, as I think that this starts to tinker with an individual’s very sense of self – one’s identity. Does altering the brain’s manner of sensory processing potentially also alter the brain’s experience of sense of self? Until we answer that question, we should tinker extremely cautiously or perhaps not at all (I am presently favoring the latter).

Of course, all of this skirts around the larger issue of exactly where my sense of self lies. Does my brain completely contain and therefore solely determine my identity or is my identity part of a more complex interface between the physical brain and a non-physical soul? That is a big question for a six-paragraph blog to answer but one that deserves consideration as we seek to develop artificial interfaces within the brain that not only change the way I experience my environment but potentially how I experience my self.

With regard to hooking my brain directly to the Internet, given what I’ve seen of the Internet to date, I will leave my thumbs and smartphone as my interface of choice, at least for the near future.

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