Imagine it’s 2050, the pandemic is long over. Cyborgs (beings with both organic and biomechatronic body parts) walk the streets of your town. Will your child fall in love with a cyborg? The beau has a brain-computer-interface (BCI). Maybe he or she has an artificial limb or two. Cyborgs common enough your child or grandchild could befriend or fall in love with one? Seriously? That’s what some forward-looking companies think might happen. But before we consider the future, let’s look at the development of BCI.
Discovery of Brain Waves
Brain-computer-interfaces, also known as brain-machine-interfaces (BMI), begins their story in 1875. Richard Canton discovered electrical signals in animal brains. His discovery inspired Hans Berger to discover the human electroencephalogram (EEG) on July 6, 1924. The EEG measures brainwaves. Today it is invaluable. Its used to diagnose and treat neurological diseases (seizures, brain tumors, etc.)
Computers and Imagination
Konrad Zuse, a German, created the first programmable computer between 1936-1938.
It was also in the 1930s when science fiction authors such as John C. Campbell (John Scott Campbell) and Edmond Hamilton wrote and published stories about transferring memories and personalities into computers.
Tommy Flowers developed and demonstrated the first electric programmable computer, Colossus. In 1943.
IBM introduced its first scientific computer, the 701, in 1953.
By the 1950s, there were many science fiction stories about uploading and restoring brains via computers.
Development: Using Brain Waves
In 1963, an Oxford scientist claimed he’d figured out how to use human brain waves to control a simple slide projector.
By the 1980s, neuroscientists had figured out that if you use an implant to record signals from groups of cells in, say, the motor cortex of a monkey, and then you average all their firings together, you can figure out where the monkey means to move its limb—a finding many regarded as the first major step toward developing brain-controlled prostheses for human patients. Wired.com
But the bare wires and the jelly-like substance of the brain made for a notoriously unstable combination. Eventually it wouldn’t work at all.
In 1996, the FDA approved the implantation of Phil Kennedy’s “cone electrodes” in a human patient. Over time, that first patient controlled a computer cursor with his brain.
Connectors to the implants, electronics, and system engineering are some current limitations of these BCIs. An electrode lifespan of a five-year maximum is another limitation. And brain surgery every five years increases one’s risk of complications, means more recovery time, and more costs.
More and More Research
The Utah Array is a patented microelectrode array technology. Surgeons can implant it into human brains, spinal cords, or peripheral nerves. It has up to 256 electrodes and has been FDA-cleared for temporary neural recording since the 1990s. These folks aren’t a cyborg yet, they’re research subjects. Right?
Several research groups have implanted Utah Arrays in people that lasted multiple years.
In 2017 Elon Musk founded Neuralink. Their website states they are developing “the first neural implant that will let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go.”
By 2019, Neuralink’s interdisciplinary team announced that they had “created a 3,000-electrode neural interface where electrodes could be implanted at a rate of between 30 and 200 per minute. Each thread of electrodes is implanted by a sophisticated surgical robot that essentially acts like a sewing machine. This all happens while specifically avoiding blood vessels that blanket the surface of the brain.”
We don’t know yet what 3000 electrodes in your brain will help you do. But with that many electrodes, could a quadriplegic walk? Would the person with that implant be a cyborg
In 2019, Johns Hopkins researchers reported that they implanted electrodes in the brain of a “mostly” paralyzed person. The electrodes enabled him to have “mind control” of motorized prosthetic arms.
Is a Cyborg Coming to Your Future?
From the Six Million Dollar Man to The Matrix, from Man Plus to Cyberpunk, writers have imagined a connection between man and machine. And from EEGs to brain implants, advances in biotechnology are marching forward. Will it change our humanity as I posited in November 2019? Some predict that the technology will be in common use by 2050. What if your child falls in love with a cyborg? Or your grandchild. Do you think most people will accept cyborgs or will cyborg be uncool and social outcasts?