“If we had something that could truly enhance our experience of life, without risk, why not?”
This question was posed during a public conversation about neuro-enhancement by Joseph Pancrazio, who leads the department of bioengineering at George Mason University. Of course, enhancing our lives via stimulating the brain or recording its signals to run prostheses does carry risk. The challenge, according to Pancrazio and his fellow panelists, is separating the hype from the hope, and measuring the risk versus the reward. The conversation took place Sept. 19 in the auditorium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Reward can far outweigh risk in the case of people with serious disability. Blind and near-blind people might risk the chance of infection, stroke, and other damage to have a chip implanted in their retina, even if it restores only a fraction of full vision. People who have lost limbs or motor control might risk the same dangers to be able to control their bladders or to lift a bottle to their lips without spilling, as in this video:
More than 275,000 people have spinal-cord-stimulating implants to treat their pain; 200,000 people have cochlear implants; and 100,000 have deep brain stimulators, treating tremor, dystonia, and (experimentally) severe depression, Pancrazio said. “They are a reality—a clinical reality—for patients,” he said, but “they are a therapy of last resort.”
What if your vision is merely low? Is a 10 percent improvement worth it? Twenty percent? Should you wait for the 2.0 version of a neural prosthesis?
Maybe wait, suggested Daofen Chen, program director in systems and cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. While brain imaging and materials science have advanced far enough to make devices that can tap into the brain, neuroscience has not kept up.
“We simply know very, very little about how our brain works, and about the neural basis of our human behaviors,” Chen said. “Within this skull, it’s a mystery.” We are learning more every day, though, and Chen said he expects the new U.S.-based BRAIN Initiative to help unlock some of the mystery. “This is going to make NIH and the scientific community very busy for the next few decades.”
That time frame was echoed by Ramez Naam, a computer scientist and author of More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement as well as novels that explore the topic. “I don’t think there’s going to be a Lasik for brain surgery next year,” he said, “but in 30 years, maybe.”
While today’s motivation for building ever-better brain interfaces is medical, Naam says, the fact that it is a form of information-exchanging technology carries additional potential. “The most powerful impact this technology will have—far, far from now—is by enhancing the ability of humans to communicate.”
Information technologies like the printing press, the smart phone, and even the development of written language radically altered human behavior and quality of life. While it can be argued that some new technology has favored the rich and those who could maintain control, it is not a given that it must. For example, “There are more people with phones in Africa than in the U.S.; it’s been a great equalizer,” Naam said. “The long-term trajectory of information technologies…has been largely positive. They have increased our rate of invention and made possible the spread of ideas.”
Unlike other forms of technology, though, most brain-machine interfaces are inside the body, which prefers to be a closed system. The electrodes that are placed in the brain for deep-brain stimulation have lasted more than 15 years, but the controller, a pacemaker-like device implanted in the chest, needs new batteries every few years. Will more complex systems need periodic software upgrades, too?
“The upgrade question is a huge one,” Naam said. “Would you ever decide to get an enhancement this year knowing that next year you’ll need another one [surgery] to get the upgrade?”
He suggests a more-plausible middle step will occur first: People who have a serious disability and get an implant may later extend the number of inputs. If you already have the visual data enhancement from a retinal implant, for example, “you might also add the video from your home, or from YouTube,” he suggested.
One audience member followed up on this idea by asking how much information is too much. Every day, we seem to be adding information, sensations, and stress; what about overload?
“We have to learn what works for us,” said Naam. “It could be we try these things and find they don’t work.
“But at minimum, we’ll get restoration of function [for injured people] and also we’ll get insight into the structure, and function, and working of the brain and the mind.”
The session was part of the Neuroscience and Society series, a partnership between the Dana Foundation and AAAS. A video of this session is posted at dana.org; it’s worth watching to see Naam and Pancrazio’s many examples from the 50-year history of brain interfaces, both in the lab and far afield. Videos of previous sessions are also available: The Adolescent Brain; Neuroscience and the Law; and The Aging Brain: What’s New in Brain Research, Treatment, and Policy.
The next session, “The Arts and the Brain: What Does Your Brain See? What Does Your Brain Hear?” is on Oct. 24.