Neural Implants: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

On Wednesday, March 11, USC was visited by Dr. Philip Alvelda, the current Program Manager of the Biological Technologies Department of DARPA. He gave a talk to a crowd of (primarily engineering) grad students and professors about “Cortical Modems”, DARPA’s vision of the future of assistive technology: a direct neural interface that costs $10. (You can see a similar presentation here, but be forewarned, they didn’t tape the slides! Humanity Plus magazine published an article about this Silicon Valley presentation, found here.) At first, I found his talk very inspiring, but as he progressed, I was terrified by the ethical implications of the technology, and I wasn’t the only one with profound questions. During his talk, Dr. Alvelda espoused his commitment to the ethical issues involved, and requested that researchers get involved in this aspect of it. (What we can do, versus what we should do.) But his persistent dodging of the crowd’s ethical concerns left me deeply concerned about the future that lies in store if this technology gets traction.

IdeasCurrently, using optogenetics and optical technology, scientists are able to observe the fluorescing of the ~85,000 neurons of the zebrafish brain in real-time as they activate and deactivate. If we could get that level of resolution on particular human brain areas, such as primary visual (VI) or primary auditory (AI) cortex, we should be able to create interfaces with that part of the brain. (This technology does not exist yet.)

The obvious clinical application of such a technology is in the field of prosthetics. Cochlear implants, for example, have been a tremendous boon to the deaf community (depending who you ask), but they have their limitations. They function by stimulating the auditory nerve, replacing the function of the hair cells. However, they don’t have the same bandwidth as normal hearing. They allow a user to understand speech, but music is incomprehensible. Also, if there is damage to the auditory nerve, cochlear implants won’t be able to help.

Retinal prostheses (not yet commercially available) function in a similar fashion. If the ganglion cells of the eye and the optic nerve are intact, retinal prostheses can simulate the function of the retina, but if the optic nerve is damaged, nothing can be done.

Neural interfaces, at the very least, could change the way we think about sensory prosthetics, but may have the potential to change the face of society in deeply frightening ways. Dr. Alvelda proposed that if we were able to create imaging technology that can observe brain activity at a high enough resolution, we would be able to read and write perceptual information directly from/into brain activity. In other words, we should be able to project images or sounds (or any other perception) directly to the brain! Restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf! (And balance to the clumsy?)

As stirring as this vision may sound, the frightening part enters when you start thinking about how the development of this technology will likely come about in practice. Excellent clinical technologies can be expensive to develop and often have a very limited market. For example,  iDigitalTimes reported in 2013 that the i-Limb prosthesis from Touch Bionics Inc. can cost $38K-$120K, depending on how much of the arm is being replaced.

So how does one get funding for such a project? The easiest way is to expand the market to, well, everybody. A technology that anyone could benefit from is more likely to gain the attention of government funding agencies, not to mention the potential interest of venture capital. Aiding the clinical population becomes a side benefit, despite being the initial reason for developing the technology.

On one hand, you can start to see how this could begin to realize some of the coolest things science fiction writers and filmmakers have imagined about our future. Picture a world where augmented reality was integrated into your senses of sight and sound, rather than having to wear devices like the Oculus Rift, Google Glass, or headphones!

On the other hand, though, are the potential abuses of this technology. The abuse of human-machine interfaces and of genomics is an area that has been well explored in film and literature. The picture they paint is frightening, and raises a slew of ethical questions. Consider just the following examples:

  • In The Matrix, the minds of humanity are enslaved by visual and auditory neural implants. What’s to stop a tyrannical government (or terrorists) from hacking into our brains and controlling our minds?
  • In GATTACA, the advent of genetic technology leads to a society that practices eugenics and genetic discrimination. Would the advent of neural interfaces lead to a technological elite?
  • Similarly, in None So Blind, an award-winning short story by Joe Haldeman, a surgical operation is invented that dramatically increases human intelligence at the small cost of your eyeballs. The last line of the story is “The rest of us [i.e., not the protagonists] have to choose which kind of blindness to endure.” Aside from the creation of a technological elite, at what point is the cost of modification too high?

Any one of these worlds would be horrific to live in. It would be the kind of place that crushes the human spirit and foments rebellion and/or crime. (It could be argued that rebellion/crime are warranted when a ruling system is sufficiently corrupt!)

These are serious concerns that have worried the creative community for decades (if not centuries). They need to be taken seriously by researchers and by financial backers (be they public or private), and not dismissed lightly. The history of technology shows that there are always people willing to abuse new technologies, and that pioneering researchers tend to throw themselves headlong into a new field without enough caution about the consequences. (A recent case study: the horrific deaths associated with the first stages of genetic therapy.) It’s not encouraging when someone asks a serious ethical question, like the concern about brain-hacking, only to be answered with “How is that different than the radio making me listen to ads I don’t want to hear?”

Neural interfaces are a potentially amazing solution for certain clinical populations. But the negative social ramifications are so powerful that it might be better if, just for once, the community of science and tech researchers says “This isn’t worth the risks.”

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