new types of sensory information even when it’s delivered noninvasively using, for example, magnetic pulses.
Ultimately, we believe a “co-adaptive” bidirectional BCI, where the electronics learns with the brain and talks back to the brain constantly during the process of learning, may prove to be a necessary step to build the neural bridge. Building such co-adaptive bidirectional BCIs is the goal of our center.
We are similarly excited about recent successes in targeted treatment of diseases like diabetes using “electroceuticals” – experimental small implants that treat a disease without drugs by communicating commands directly to internal organs.
And researchers have discovered new ways of overcoming the electrical-to-biochemical language barrier. Injectible “neural lace,” for example, may prove to be a promising way to gradually allow neurons to grow alongside implanted electrodes rather than rejecting them. Flexible nanowire-based probes, flexible neuron scaffolds and glassy carbon interfaces may also allow biological and technological computers to happily coexist in our bodies in the future.
From assistive to augmentative
Elon Musk’s new startup Neuralink has the stated ultimate goal of enhancing humans with BCIs to give our brains a leg up in the ongoing arms race between human and artificial intelligence. He hopes that with the ability to connect to our technologies, the human brain could enhance its own capabilities – possibly allowing us to avoid a potential dystopian future where AI has far surpassed natural human capabilities. Such a vision certainly may seem far-off or fanciful, but we shouldn’t dismiss an idea on strangeness alone. After all, self-driving cars were relegated to the realm of science fiction even a decade and a half ago – and now share our roads.
In a closer future, as brain-computer interfaces move beyond restoring function in disabled people to augmenting able-bodied individuals beyond their human capacity, we need to be acutely aware of a host of issues related to consent, privacy, identity, agency and inequality. At our center, a team of philosophers, clinicians and engineers is working actively to address these ethical, moral and social justice issues and offer neuroethical guidelines before the field progresses too far ahead.
Connecting our brains directly to technology may ultimately be a natural progression of how humans have augmented themselves with technology over the ages, from using wheels to overcome our bipedal limitations to making notations on clay tablets and paper to augment our memories. Much like the computers, smartphones and virtual reality headsets of today, augmentative BCIs, when they finally arrive on the consumer market, will be exhilarating, frustrating, risky and, at the same time, full of promise.
James Wu, Ph.D. Student in Bioengineering, Researcher at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, University of Washington and Rajesh P. N. Rao, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and Director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering , University of Washington