VOLUNTEERS are to have microchips implanted on the surface of their brains in the first human trials of a technology that will enable people to control machines using the power of thought alone.
Meet the cyborgs: humans with a hint of machineJohn Harlow
The chips will enable the volunteers to do tasks such as turning on lights or drawing curtains just by thinking about them. Electrical signals from the brain will be transmitted to a computer and a remote control unit.
The technology has been tested on monkeys, which were able to move a cursor on a computer screen. The chips are expected to benefit disabled people first by making everyday tasks easier.
The trials of the “neural prosthetic” devices are to be conducted by Cyberkinetics, an American biomedical firm. They are the first government-approved tests of such systems and will be watched by people ranging from doctors seeking relief for spinal injury victims to military planners developing unmanned aircraft.
The developers of the technology also acknowledge that it is likely to raise ethical and practical concerns. “I can understand people will be afraid of machines that appear to read their minds,” said Burke Barrett, a vice-president at Cyberkinetics, which is based in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
“There are other questions, too, such as making sure the chip interprets the right signal from a mass of electronic and chemical signals that it will be picking up in the brain. We want the person to be in control, not the computer, so there will be safeguards against the computer getting it wrong.”
Barrett said he expected the first trials to be carried out with five quadriplegics, who will each have a 4mm silicon wafer laid on the surface of their frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement.
Unlike other recent neural implants, such as a chip that transmits electrical pulses into the brain to calm Parkinson’s disease tremors, the new device, called BrainGate, reads what is happening there.
Each action, such as lifting a finger, has a distinct pattern of electronic pulses. The chip detects and amplifies the signals and sends them down a cord leading through a hole above the left ear to a videotape-size “descrambler box” which translates them and relays them to a computer.
In the trial, the computer will activate devices such as kettles, light switches and telephones by remote control. About 100 different functions will be tried.
In the future, when the descrambler is reduced in size to a pack of cards and connected to the computer without wires, the system is intended to be tailored to each user’s needs.
Among those watching the research is Christopher Reeve, the actor who was paralysed in a horse-riding accident. “It’s not a question of what is natural, but more about what science can offer us,” said a spokesman for the star. “This offers hope to many who find themselves incapacitated. This technology could make them feel fully human again.”
Philosophers have argued for centuries about blurring the line between man and device: a 14th-century pope condemned spectacles as unnatural and some religious conservatives remain opposed to mechanical prosthetics such as pacemakers or the finger-operated voicebox used by Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge physicist.
These have all been mechanical in contrast to Braingate, which reads the brain’s electrical impulses. Such a system could provide a link to the world for victims of “locked-in syndrome”, in which coma patients are conscious but have no muscle control and are incapable of communication.
Further into the future, the technology may have military applications. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in America has funded research at Duke University, North Carolina, where two monkeys, Ivy and Aurora, have been taught to play warlike video games using brain electrodes to choose their targets.
Two years ago Anthony Tether, the agency’s director, said: “Imagine a warrior with the intellect of a human and the immortality of a machine, controlled by our thoughts.” The idea was used in the Terminator film, The Rise of the Machines, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger is faced with the T-X, a killer robot in human flesh.
Miguel Nicolelis, the neuroscientist who taught Ivy and Aurora, dismissed such Hollywood nightmares but added: “We have to be careful. If we make one mistake, then all our work will be undermined and all the potential benefits lost.”
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