Computing and neuroscience are coming together fast — a convergence illustrated vividly by the first use of a computer algorithm to process electrical signals in the human brain, disclosed this week. The implant developed at the University of Southern California helps a damaged brain to encode memories and offers the hope of banishing extreme forgetfulness, whether caused by injury or disease.
Recent advances are taking neurotechnology into realms that would have seemed science fiction a decade or two ago. For example, paralysed people can operate robotic arms and even move their own limbs when their thoughts are channelled through electronic implants. Superscanners are beginning to unlock the minds of some patients who were thought to be in a permanently vegetative state. And experiments with lab animals, free of ethical constraints that apply to human subjects, give a peek at future possibilities, such as rewriting memories to obliterate bad experiences and reinforce good ones.
Apart from expressing sheer wonder at the speed of progress in bioelectronics, how should society respond? Using information technology to manipulate human thoughts and memories clearly raises moral and ethical issues, but first we should welcome the promised medical benefits. If clinical trials confirm that the USC prosthesis can restore memory in relatively young patients with head injuries or stroke, by encoding their brain signals to bypass the damaged brain region, that would be a fantastic advance.
But the researchers have also mentioned Alzheimer’s disease as a possible long-term application of the technology. Restoring memory through an implant in Alzheimer’s patients, who suffer from widespread and diffuse neurodegeneration, is likely to be more difficult technically than rerouting neural signals past a localised lesion caused by head injury or stroke.
Even if this becomes possible, there are troubling questions about the resources that should be devoted to using neural implants to treat progressive diseases in the elderly — and more generally about who should receive bioelectronic therapy.
As we look forward, excitement about neurotechnology should not blind us to the probability, little discussed in scientific circles, that the commercial production and surgical implantation of these devices will make them much more expensive than today’s relatively simple devices such as cochlear implants and heart pacemakers. People who blanch at the price of conventional biological medicines now may get a shock.
Beyond resource allocation and patient selection lie broader questions about human identity as computerised implants enter our minds and bodies. Although human-machine hybrids worthy of the name “cyborg” are unlikely to appear in the real world for decades, even if research continues to accelerate and the cost of the technology begins to fall, it is not too soon to think about the implications of electronic enhancement of the healthy as well as the sick.
Some of the questions are similar to those that people have been asking for some time about future genetic enhancement. For instance, there will be issues of equity if a privileged few can afford to implant an electronic memory and mental performance booster beyond the means of the majority. On the other hand, human computerisation will raise some problems of its own, above all security and privacy. Sooner or later we will have to face up to the threat of malicious hacking into personal memories.
This article is published in collaboration with The Financial Times. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Image: A boy has his brain scanned for research purposes. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon.