Scientists: Brain implants risky, could make us telepathic

(Image courtesy Gerd Altmann via Pixabay.)

It seems like something out of a sci-fi story, but you might be able to control a device or talk to a friend just by using your thoughts — and it could happen sooner than you think.

External and internal neural interfaces are already in use in the medical field today for stroke rehabilitation and epilepsy treatment. And they could be used for wider applications in the future, such as the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This sounds promising but who’s in charge of where this technology will lead us and how it will be used?

In a report released last week, UK scientists called for a government investigation into neural interface technologies to stimulate innovation and allow the public to have a role in shaping the future of the field.

“The applications for neural interfaces are as unimaginable today as the smartphone was a few decades ago,” said Christofer Toumazou, chair in Biomedical Circuit Design at Imperial College London, in the report.

There are currently no internally-implanted neural interfaces outside of the medical field, but this could change quickly.

Tech mogul Elon Musk announced in July that his company Neuralink could start human trials as early as 2020, using electrodes inserted in the brain to help people with paralysis or locked-in syndrome control a computer or phone.

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has shown interest in telepathic typing and the company is supporting research that aims to create a headset able to transcribe a vocabulary of 1,000 words, at a rate of 100-words per minute, just by using one’s own thoughts.

Marc Zuckerberg (Image courtesy Facebook.)

“By 2040, neural interfaces are likely to be an established option to enable people to walk after paralysis and tackle treatment-resistant depression,” said Tim Constandinou, co-chair of the report and Director of the Next Generation Interfaces Lab at the Imperial College London, in last week’s report. “While advances like seamless brain-to-computer communication seem a much more distant possibility, we should act now to ensure our ethical and regulatory safeguards are flexible enough for any future development.”

The report proposed that the government use this field to test a new regulatory approach which could lead to an acceleration of the development of innovative technology in the future.  It also recommends an investigation into ethical and safety concerns presented by neural interfaces.  The report also mentions including the public in shaping how the the technology will be used and regulated, as well as insuring the safety of citizens’ neural data.

The report found strong support for neural interfaces in medical settings, such as helping sick or injured patients, but less support for incorporating the technology to enhance otherwise healthy people.

While we’re not there yet, “people could become telepathic to some degree,” the report said.

Alex Korolov