Last April, Vincent Leung returned home after a long day of work. This electronic engineer and director of the Qualcomm Institute Circuits Labs of the University of California at San Diego (USA) just wanted to rest and eat with his family. He changed, prepared a light dinner, sat on the couch, turned on the television and watched an episode of the dystopian series on Netflix.
Black Mirror in which an overprotective mother
she had her daughter implanted with a chip in her head to monitor everything the girl observed. Then, while Leung finally relaxed, a scream altered the tranquility of his home. "It's what you do!" Yelled his wife, who was right next to him.
Vincent Leung does not deny it. "That's fiction," she clarifies, "but it's true, we're doing more crazy things than what you see in the series." Leung is one of several researchers who cross the borders of what is scientifically possible by developing increasingly powerful neurotechnologies.
Arkangel – Black Mirror
Funded by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Leung works on the next generation of wireless brain implants. He call them
neurograins -or neurograins- and they are chips the size of a grain of salt. "Look -extend a small black box in which you can see tiny metallic dots- Are not they cute?"
Leung moves comfortably in his laboratory full of cables, integrated circuits, amplifiers, screwdrivers and blackboards. For decades, he devoted himself to improving the power of mobile phone chips. Now, he says, it's time to design chips for the brain. It seems to be the next logical step.
Over the years, technologies have been approaching the body. Until not long ago, to answer a call one had to walk towards the landline. Now all you have to do is take your mobile phone out of your pocket and put it in your ear or talk directly through small earphones – like the Apple Airpods – in our ears. Everything indicates that the next phase of telecommunications will go further:
the technologies will penetrate the skin and enter into our bodies.
A chip to stimulate the cerebral cortex
"It's a great scientific challenge," says Leung, "at first, the idea is to implant neurograins in the cerebral cortex, that is, the outer layer of the brain, of people who have lost some function due to injury or illness. through tiny electrical pulses, stimulate atrophied neurons. "
Leung's team at the University of California at San Diego is part of a broad international collaboration – which also includes Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Stanford and Berkeley universities, and the Wyss Center for Bioengineering in Geneva. – to develop wireless neuronal prostheses capable of recording and stimulating brain activity.
Tens of thousands of neurograins could function as a kind of cortical intranet, wirelessly coordinated through a central communications center in the form of a thin electronic patch placed on the skin. This would open new neurorehabilitation therapies, especially taking into account that this network has both 'reading' and 'writing' capabilities.
Neurograins could 'read' neurons, that is, record their electrical activity, and they could also stimulate them. "We could transmit data from the outside world to neurograins," says Leung, "for example, projecting sounds to deaf people or images to the blind: if a blind person has their visual cortex intact we could take a picture with a camera and wirelessly send a encoded signal in a language that the brain can understand. "
In 2004, Matthew Nagle – a 25-year-old quadriplegic man after an incident in which he was wounded with a knife –
He became the first person to move objects by thinking alone. The neuroscientist John Donoghue of Brown University implanted him in the part of the brain where the motor activity is coordinated what he calls
BrainGate: a tiny silicon chip of four millimeters on the side with one hundred electrodes.
It was the first brain-computer interface: a system through which signals are processed and sent that traveled through a bundle of wires that came out of Nagle's scalp to an electronic cart with the size of a refrigerator that allowed it, between other things, changing the channels of a television, adjusting the volume, opening and closing an orthopedic hand, moving the cursor of a computer, reading emails and playing with video games just by imagining that he moved his arm. "Bionic brains come true," the Nature magazine then called it.
Since then, these neurotechnologies have only diversified. In addition to the thirteen paralyzed people using the BrainGate system, two monkeys with brain implants at Duke University were able to steer wheelchairs using only their minds. "These technologies will open up a world of possibilities," says entrepreneur Steve Hoffman of the Founders Space start-up, "not only will it allow us to communicate mind to mind, but also connect us to the internet through the brain."
These statements seem somewhat exaggerated, taken from films like
The Matrix or of novels cyberpunks like
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – a near future in which everyone is connected to the network 24 hours a day through a cortical link – until one learns of DARPA initiatives as a program with a budget of four million dollars called Silent Talk, whose The objective is to "allow user-to-user communication on the battlefield without the use of voice through the analysis of neural signals".
In the last decade, the brain-computer interfaces have diversified: companies like
Emotiv and NeuroSky have developed videogames based on these neurotechnologies, as well as the Japanese company Neurowear that developed in 2011 some cat ears called Necomimi that respond to the emotions of its users. And during the opening ceremony of the Brazilian Soccer World Cup, in 2014, the neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis showed in two disappointing seconds how
A paraplegic man used a robotic exoskeleton controlled by the mind to kick a ball.
In this time, miniaturization has accelerated. In 2011, a team from the University of California at Berkeley first described tiny silicon particles they called "neural dust", broadly based on the same principles of neurograins.
In 2017, two of its inventors, the neuroscientist José Carmena and the engineer Michel Maharbiz, opened the Iota Biosciences company to develop these wireless implants that could change the way we understand our bodies: they are able to monitor in real time muscles, organs and nerves in the depths of the body – as they demonstrated in the magazine Neuron. They can treat epilepsy and bladder control and, also in the future, control prostheses.
The sensors of this neuronal powder are communicated through ultrasound with a patch that activates them and receives information for any desired therapy. Its impellers imagine that they could be implanted in a simple ambulatory procedure, according to Carmena, in the same way that a person gets a piercing or a tattoo.
Hopes and threats
The possibilities of brain-computer interfaces have attracted the interest of Elon Musk. In 2017, the South African billionaire, founder of SpaceX and Tesla,
revealed details of a new company, Neuralink, in San Francisco: build an implantable brain-computer interface that allows us to communicate wirelessly with anything that has a chip. This symbiosis would be, according to Musk, as our insurance against the "existential risk" that means the advance of artificial intelligence.
It all sounds very sci-fi: in theory, we could instantly absorb knowledge from the cloud or transmit images from one person's retina to the visual cortex of another. "I think the best solution is to have a layer of artificial intelligence that can work biologically inside of us," Musk said. "The first use of technology will be to repair brain injuries as a result of a stroke," he described in a long article.
published in Wait Buy Why.
For the moment, that is also the goal of the researchers behind the neurograins: to allow people paralyzed by
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, stroke or other disorders leave their confinement and communicate their needs and desires to others, operate word processing programs or other software, control a wheelchair or neuroprosthetics. "It would be a great improvement in the quality of life," says Leung. "First we'll try it on non-human primates."
What will come next? The aim of DARPA, it is presumed, would be to improve the skills of military personnel. "We could get to drive drones with thought," speculates Leung, who admits that the field of brain-computer interfaces is fertile ground for science fiction.
But just as these technologies open up new possibilities, they also imply new risks and ethical problems. Could groups of hackers steal internal data from a body – one of the current problems with the Fitbits – or use the body of a person against their will? "Neuronal prostheses force us to reevaluate how we think about the responsibility of our actions," says philosopher Walter Glannon.
Although, due to federal regulations, it is very difficult to take neurotechnology out of the laboratory,
neurograins and the
neural dust They multiply hopes and also threats, such as the loss of individuality and mental privacy.
"The scenarios opened by the brain-computer interfaces lead to interesting questions about what it means to be human –
warn the specialists in neuroética Mark A. Attiah and Martha J. Farah in an article -. Would we be human if we could make others move or act from our thinking? Would we be human if our minds never operated independently of others? These neurotechnologies could bring tectonic social changes. "
Federico Kukso /