Mind-controlled tech: Is it possible?
Thought-controlled devices seem exciting and sci-fi, but it does mean having a chip in your head.
Some people worry that there’s too much technology in our lives. And they may have a point, given how countless people now carry the internet around in their pocket and use it as a primary form of communication. But even if you avoid smartphone use, it’s still practically impossible to shun technology in our world. There are computer chips in our watches, our cars, our light switches, even our pets! Where will it end?
Well, if certain people have their way, it’ll go even further. We’ll have microchips implanted into our brains that can interact with the computers around us by thought alone. It may sound like something from the more hardcore end of science fiction, but it’s very much a possibility. And if Elon Musk’s recent claims regarding his Neuralink company prove valid (which is… questionable), it could soon be the reality for a great many people.
Musk is just the latest and most obvious example of someone hoping to make a big breakthrough with computer-controlling chips in the brain. Such technology, in various guises, has been around for quite some time. So, what does the future of brain-computer interfaces via microchips implanted in our cortex actually look like?
In many ways, things look quite promising.
Thanks to their ability to send and receive information remotely via computers, microchips and other related devices have long been inserted into brains to record, transmit, stimulate, or even block activity in specific neurological locations.
For example, arrays of electrodes have been implanted in the brains of epilepsy patients to better record and even predict the atypical neurological activity that leads to seizures. Similarly, deep-brain stimulation, via implanted devices that induce activity in key brain regions, is an established treatment for things like Parkinson’s disease, and is even being looked into for disorders like depression.
Then there are the people who end up with some form of paralysis after an experience that leaves them with nerve damage. Their nerves are no longer capable of relaying signals from their (typically intact and fully functional) brains to their muscles and limbs.
More like this
Brain implants can increasingly provide a technical workaround, meaning chips can detect and transmit the necessary signals to re-establish a sense of touch, allow complex arm movements, or convey thoughts to a computer, allowing a form of conscious communication. Such interventions have only become more impressive and elaborate as technology and processing power has advanced.
Still, it’s one thing to do this for people who can’t use their own limbs or communicate voluntarily; in those cases, it’s worth the time and effort, as it’s genuinely helping them recover some degree of autonomy, or quality of life. But it’s very different to installing such devices in healthy individuals.
There are, undeniably, many hurdles that need to be cleared before brain-computer interfaces become an everyday reality. One is that every brain is technically unique, having developed in its own way via the individual’s life experiences.
So, the particular patterns of activity in one brain that represent even basic things like up and down, or specific words, need not be the same in another. And you’d need to know exactly what the activity in the brain means before you implant chips that read and react to it.
And that’s before we get to figuring out the more complex instructions for things like driving cars or playing video games. Translating brain activity for such things into machine-readable information is a big ask.
Then there are the practical concerns, not least of which is what these chips will be made of. The inside of the brain is a mass of highly reactive chemicals and electrical activity.
Implants would need to be inert enough to not upset the delicate processes by their presence, but also sensitive enough to read and process the activity around them. Current technology has made impressive progress with this, but if it were to be rolled out to millions of people, we’d need to be 100 per cent certain that it’s safe and durable.
But the question that really needs answering is, how many people will actually want to have technology literally inserted into their cortex? A surprising 60 per cent of Americans say they’d be okay with it, but that’s when it’s purely hypothetical.
In reality, the prospect of having strangers drill into your skull and stick chips in your brain is likely to prove unpalatable, especially for a population where millions get furious at fictional microchips in vaccines, and even more are terrified of dentists.
Again, technology exists to solve this dilemma too: some complex brain implants can now be inserted via blood vessels, removing the need to drill into someone’s skull. But the options here are limited.
Ultimately, the technology behind computer-brain interface implants is more advanced and impressive than most people realise. But we’re still a long way from the point where it’s more practical and convenient than just using your hands.
Dean is a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’. He is the author of the the popular Guardian Science blog ‘Brain Flapping’ (now ‘Brain Yapping’ on the Cosmic Shambles Network with accompanying podcast), the bestselling books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, and his first book aimed at teens, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It.
- Try your first 6 issues for just £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC Science Focus Magazine.
- Risk - free offer! Cancel at any time when you subscribe via Direct Debit.
- FREE UK delivery.
- Stay up to date with the latest developments in the worlds of science and technology.