Blog: Mind Control, Mind Reading
and other real-life science fiction stuff
There’s a book on my bookshelf I read a while ago (The Brain Electric) that reminded me of my obsession with all things ‘neuro’. I’ve always been fascinating with how our brain defines us as humans, yet in many ways, we know very little about it.
The book illustrates the field’s exciting potential not only to aid the disabled but to enhance human abilities altogether. It appears possible that even healthy people might someday have the option of merging their brains with computers.
Wait, What? That’s BS! (Bad Science)
We need to start somewhere to get to a future in which people will communicate with computers, and even to one another just by using our thoughts. This book takes us into the gritty labs of the surgeons who have been doing the hard work for the past 15 years. They all are in competition for the next big DARPA grant (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and, of course, the Nobel Prize that is almost certain to be awarded to the best of them.
The author takes us through procedure after procedure in which doctors breach skulls, and implant arrays of electrodes into the brains of rats, monkeys, and epileptic humans (I know) in attempts to get neurons communicating meaningfully with computers.
There have already been a number of significant breakthroughs: A paraplegic woman thinks a robot arm to feed herself; a monkey whose arms and hands are restrained plays a video game; and the brains of two rats are linked in a way that gets the actions of one to affect the actions of the other.
So amazing, so promising but frustratingly primitive. The brain has 100 billion neurons, but even the most sophisticated implants can track only a few hundred. Within weeks or months the immune system invariably attacks the implanted electrodes, rendering many of them useless, and the brain changes so rapidly that connections often have to be recalibrated daily to keep them working properly.
From science fiction to real life
Although there’s still much about the human brain that we don’t know, historically, we have been building what our minds have imagined is possible through technology. At this point we have a better idea of what we are capable of creating, even transforming our lives as we know it.
These possibilities also prompt to some ethical questions. What happens when we allow someone or something else inside our brain? Do we open ourselves up to mind reading, or mind control? At some point, are we going to be able to be hacked? Many of us are not part of the decisions that are made and will be made while large areas of our lives are being (or are going to be) rewritten and replaced by technology without our consent.
This is stuff we should feel free to discuss without being laughed at. Even if it turns out that mind control (to mention one thing) is imposible, it’s important to understand why it’s imposible. We cannot foresee how big the impact of these advances are and that’s both a concern and a desire. That is why I think we should advocate for a more responsible way of building technology safely, and I would also add, transparently.
The book ends with a reminder of just how brain science is still in a very early stage. Quoting Dr. Schwartz: “We have no idea what makes a neuron fire…, and that’s at the root of everything.” But you have to start somewhere, right?
Bonus Point: Science Fact
What we do know is that our brain doesn’t control our left leg: (ʸᵒᵘ ᵇᵉˡᶦᵉᵛᵉ ʷʰᵃᵗ ʸᵒᵘ ʷᵃⁿᵗ ᵗᵒ ᵇᵉˡᶦᵉᵛᵉ).
And my favorite paradox for neuroscientists:
We hope that the brain is simple enough that we can understand it; but it needs to be complex enough for us to be able to understand it. 🤯