It is the stuff of science fiction and of conspiracy theory. Brain-implantable chips that monitor our health, overcome physical limitations, improve memory, or track us, control our thoughts and manipulate our actions. Or even change the way we perceive and interact with reality. A technology to improve the lives of those living with a disability or an instrument of social control unleashed upon an unsuspecting public by a one-world government intent on slaving humankind? Buckle up – from the pages of the sci-fi thriller to the cleanrooms of Neuralink, we’re donning personal protective equipment for a wild ride of fantasy, projection, the FDA and a generous sprinkling of science to uncover the truth about brain-implantable microchips…
It’s safe to say that since the inception of science fiction as a genre, writers have been interested in the ways in which dystopian societies of the future will seek to control populations to carry out their own – usually despicable – agendas.
Whether through a fascistic rule of law or the manipulation of social control, living in a fictional dystopia usually involves triumphing over a system engineered to enforce compliance – consider the widely-acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or the lesser known but equally absorbing Vox by Christina Dalcher.
With that said, one of the perhaps most beloved of narrative tropes in sci-fi is the use of mind control through external devices such as trackers, surveillance, or microchips, with embedded chips and the examples of how this plays out are, frankly, too numerous to catalog.
But a twist on the topic that is less common is the ‘device gone bad’ – take, for instance, the 1974 movie, The Terminal Man. Based on the book by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, the movie follows the fate of Harry Benson, a guinea pig in an experiment using a brain-implanted computer to control blackouts and seizures. The procedure is successful, so much so that Benson becomes addicted to the sensations produced within his brain and, in a quest for the highest high possible, he turns on his medical team.
A third take on the disruptive brain-implant conceit is the portrayal of a society dominated by neural implants that not only connect citizens access to a centralized global network of information and communication but also allow a Big Brother-style government to track and monitor their thoughts and actions. British author Emma Newman’s Planetfall series, for example, includes one novel After Atlas in which corporate-owned governments – aka ‘gov-corps’ – control a population of ‘cyberserfs’ through the devious use of nano-tech, additive manufacturing, and data-stream management. Those who refuse the chips are marginalized by society and struggle to survive on the fringes.
But let’s drop the fiction from science fiction and track back into the world of science to see what brain-implantable chips, fresh from the cleanroom, are doing for us right now in our real world scenario.
Currently, as we stand on the threshold of this burgeoning area of scientific research, the majority of implantable chips look relatively benign. The shape and size of a grain of rice (think basmati not arborio), they are generally placed in the hand between the thumb and forefinger and use near field communication (NFC) technology, transferring data electromagnetically in the same way as contactless credit cards or mobile payments. At time of writing, they are used for security clearance to restricted areas, accessing computer networks, to track physical location, and also in making purchases. The devices are sufficiently high tech to be manufactured in a cleanroom environment with all that goes with that, but at the same time are sufficiently simple to be inserted by those without medical training. In fact, when reviewing the implantation procedure viewers are reminded of the process of microchipping a pet dog.
But these implants are ‘passive chips’ that have no internal power supply, becoming active only when scanned.
And as such their use is very limited. As pet owners can attest, ID chips can migrate, leaving the site of introduction (usually between the shoulder blades) and traveling around the body. This means that they can be missed if the animal is scanned only in the area where the chip should be. Equally, some microchips are readable only via proprietary scanners and, although a universal scanner does exist, it is not available…universally. Many veterinary offices have only one detector, and the technology used in older microchips is not compatible with the new generation universal scanner. And all of the problems associated with microchips for dogs can easily be applicable to those for humans.
But these issues are not stopping companies like Three Square Market, a tech firm based in River Falls, WI that designs software for vending machines, from advocating the benefits of chipping to its employees.
Leveraging the convenience of not carrying an ID card, the company’s move to ID chips grants employees the same access privileges as under their previous security system but also allows them to pay for break room snack purchases with a wave of the chip-implanted hand.(1) Sounds a bit far out? Maybe so but this is not just an idea of a random small company in America’s Dairyland. According to a 2017 article in The Independent, Epicenter – a Swedish startup hub that is home to more than 100 companies – routinely microchips its employees as a measure of convenience.(2) It also offers the service to startup members, allowing the chips to replace keys, credit cards, and some communication devices. But not only does the chip allow an employee to gain access to a conference room or a vending machine Twinkie, it also opens doors to location detection, how often an employee reports to work, how long they remain at their desk, and what and how frequently they make purchases. Conceivably, when paired with wearable smart technology, such devices could also relay personal health data which, along with the more general privacy concerns surrounding such under-the-radar surveillance, starts to cast a more sinister light on the technology.
In addition, it must be acknowledged that when big names in entrepreneurship and tech innovation are lining up to fund cutting-edge research into brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), the point of the exercise has to be more than checking on the frequency of an employee’s bathroom breaks or their purchase of an afternoon sugar hit. While we accept that Twinkies are part of the national fabric and corporate culture, there just must be more of a goal in mind…
Indeed there is, and this is where it starts to become a lot more controversial.
In his free time away from planning Mars colonization and bringing us arguably some of the coolest cars on the road, innovator and billionaire Elon Musk has, in the last couple of years, shown increasing interest in neural implants.
As co-founder of a relatively new venture, Neuralink, a neurotechnology company headquartered in San Francisco, CA, Musk is championing an area that is unlike any of his other entrepreneurial interests. In an article published in Wait But Why, a website dedicated to procrastination, writer Tim Urban notes that the initiative ‘somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do—Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.’(3) Originally conceived with the vision of engineering devices that would assist patients with neurodegenerative diseases, the longer-term goal of Neuralink is one of radical human enhancement, very much in line with the dreams of the transhumanism movement. It is a perhaps little known fact that Musk is a fan of, and inspired by, the science fiction of the late Iain M. Banks whose ‘Culture’ novels leverage the conceit of a brain-machine interface known as ‘neural lace.’ Implanted into the brain during childhood, the neural lace grows with its host ‘acting like a souped-up WiFi connection that allows humans to communicate, and commune, with the ultra-advanced artificial intelligences that run the show.’(4)
And this concept has shaped Musk’s thoughts on his own version of the brain-machine interface. So in Musk’s world, what exactly are BMIs and what does he hope to do with them? Let’s take a look…
Within the field of biotechnology, the development of BMIs is a sub-set of neural engineering with one primary goal: to revolutionize human existence and communication. As we noted above, one of the most widely circulated uses of these interfaces is that of an adaptive technology to return some degree of autonomy and agency to sufferers of paralysis, limb loss, or neurodegenerative disease. In this context, BMI devices use Utah arrays – small electrodes that pair with the brain’s motor cortex where approximately 20 billion neurons work to give us control over our everyday interactions with the world. Neurons deal with both input and output – the former being data that stimulates them, and the latter being what the neurons communicate as a result. But this ‘communication’ is not necessarily linguistic, in fact in this context we’re talking about instructions from the brain to a limb, for instance. In a paralysis sufferer, the neural impulses to, say, raise the arm, fire out of the cortex successfully but because of a malfunction in the spinal cord, the signal fails to reach the limb and the patient remains immobile.
However, when we set a brain-machine interface between the motor cortex and a computer, a patient’s brain can be used as a kind of remote control to activate and control assistive devices.
In the case of a patient with a paralyzed arm, Wait But Why describes how the BMI works: ‘[The process] begins with a 100-pin multielectrode array being implanted in the person’s motor cortex [and] researchers have the person try to move their arm in different directions. Even though they can’t do that, the motor cortex still fires normally, as if they can. [… With] an electrode array, 100 single-unit electrodes each listen to a different neuron [before] a computer takes the data from the electrodes and synthesizes it into a general understanding of which firing patterns correspond to which movement intentions on an X-Y axis. Then when they link up that data to a computer screen, the person can use their mind, via “trying” to move the cursor, to really control the cursor. And this actually works.’(5)
Naturally, this has important implications for para- or quadriplegic patients but that goal per se does not seem to be the end game for Musk. In fact, the brain-implanted BMI being pioneered by Neuralink looks to do significantly more than ‘merely’ to facilitate movement and is exponentially more powerful than the devices already mentioned. Where the Utah array typically has 100 electrodes, Musk’s version is aiming for 1000. Likewise, only four or five Utah arrays can be introduced into a patient, but up to ten Neuralink chips are said to be feasible.Why the difference? According to Musk’s paper, ‘An Integrated Brain-Machine Interface Platform with Thousands of Channels,’ (posted as a preprint at Biorxiv) Neuralink’s research has engineered a high-bandwidth system that uses ‘arrays of small and flexible electrode “threads”, with as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads. We have also built a neurosurgical robot capable of inserting six threads (192 electrodes) per minute. Each thread can be individually inserted into the brain with micron precision for avoidance of surface vasculature and targeting specific brain regions. The electrode array is packaged into a small implantable device that contains custom chips for low-power on-board amplification and digitization: the package for 3,072 channels occupies less than(23×18.5×2)mm3.’(6) The scalability of this platform puts other devices in the shade, and using a robot ‘surgeon’ in a less-invasive procedure allows Musk to view the project as being on a par with laser eye treatment rather than open brain surgery.
But why the huge leap in power and performance? The truth is that the end game for Neuralink seems less about neurodegeneration or paralysis and more about direct brain-to-brain communication. Why? Fundamentally because human speech – in all its nuanced richness – still operates as a blunt tool. Think about it this way: our speech and use of codified language dates back millennia, and in essence has not changed. While it is true that it is in a constant state of evolution where new words are created and others are relegated to the file cabinet of history, the mechanism of language use remains eternally the same: We have a thought that we mentally convert to sounds which have a culturally agreed significance; we articulate these sounds; we pause and wait for a response. This is a ‘conversation.’ But when seen in those terms, it’s a crude and laborious communication tool (ask any student of a foreign language) and one that the technology of BMI hopes to disrupt.
Brain-to-brain communication may sound like we are back in the realm of fantasy but one BMI researcher, Miguel Nicolellis of Brazil, has successfully achieved it in rats.
Wiring the motor cortex of a Brazilian rat, Nicolellis connected his subject to another similarly wired rat in the US via the Internet, and both animals were shown two identical boxes. For the Brazilian rat, the boxes were transparent and contained a lever which – depending on the box selected – dispensed a treat. The American rat faced opaque boxes with no visual information as to the levers inside. Only when the US rat successfully received and acted upon the information from his Brazilian counterpart and selected the correct box and lever, did either rat get a treat as a reward. In statistical terms, the chance of the US rat succeeding completing the task was around 50% but over time and with practice the animals ‘got better at this and began to work together, almost like a single nervous system—even though neither had any idea the other rat existed.’(7) So in essence, the rats communicated on a very direct level – brain to brain – and the end result was that the success rate climbed from 50% to 64%. And it is this kind of communication that Musk is interested in – along with creating a seamless relationship between human intelligence and artificial intelligence (AI). And, of course, Neuralink is not the only player in the field.
Paradromics, a company based in Austin, TX, is leveraging brain-computer interface technologies to improve the lives of those affected by paralysis or sensory deprivation such as blindness or deafness. In engineering an implantable chip that will ‘record and stimulate electrical activity in the brain,’ Paradromics hopes to create something akin to ‘a broadband modem for the brain [that will] enable a new industry built on advanced prosthetics and bioelectric therapeutic devices.’(8) The first project will focus upon using a BMI as an assistive device to restore speech to patients suffering speech disabilities, but downstream plans include myriad neural prostheses which will be driven using advanced decoding techniques to convert neural recordings into streams of data. And according to an article published in Forbes, it is not only the clutch of Ph.Ds that people the company who are excited by the potential of Paradromics’ work. DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, recently invested $18.3 million in a 4-year grant to fund the work.(9)
Also partially funded by a DARPA grant is Synchron, a company operating from both Australia and California’s Silicon Valley. Stentrode, the company’s signature device, does not require brain surgery as it is injected into a vein in the back of the patient’s neck using a stent. When it reaches its target position in a blood vessel close to the motor cortex, Stentrode embeds 16 electrodes into the vessel’s walls and records neuronal activity across a broad range of frequencies. Currently still very much in development, the device appears to be simpler than that of Neuralink and reads only in aggregate, but it does have the important advantage of using vascular implantation as opposed to open-brain surgery for placement. At the time of writing, Synchron is engaged in a human clinical trial and we shall be excited to learn of the results when published.
However, despite industry optimism and government funding, very real technical challenges and hurdles persist which must be overcome if this technology is to prevail. Issues around implantation and biocompatibility are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, with device protocols to deal with issues around signal amplification, data compression, and power supplies also requiring on-going research and development. And then of course there’s the question of social acceptance. After all, given that the vision of Google Glass was shattered by a failure of developers to see that people just did not take to wearing a computer on their face, should we not question how many early adopters will legitimately step forward to have arrays of electrodes buried in their brain?
And then there are the inevitable concerns around privacy and security. Who owns the data captured and/or transmitted by BMIs?
What protocols should be put in place to prevent extortion or blackmail following targeted data capture? In the event of hacking – ‘brain-jacking’ – what will the SOPs for rescue look like? Do these scenarios seem unlikely? Only this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning regarding potential security exploits of some implantable heart defibrillators and home monitors.(10) Medical device manufacturer Medtronic was using a wireless technology, Conexus, that required neither authentication or authorization – basically when the device was ‘on’ anyone could control its communication. Furthermore, Conexus’ wireless protocol did not use encryption, allowing malevolent parties to packet sniff data entering or exiting the device. Furthermore, although these kinds of potential exploits are seen in many areas of computer engineering, the fix usually comes quickly in the form of a patch or an upgrade. But in the biomedical field, even the fixes must go through an FDA approval process which delays their rollout and extends the period of vulnerability for those affected. In short, there is no quick fix to a security problem even when it could directly impact a person’s health – or even their life.
Maybe this, along with a host of other reasons, is why entrepreneur Bryan Johnson who made a fortune selling his mobile payments company to PayPal, has sunk significant funds into Kernal, Musk’s perhaps closest competitor. But Kernal, which aims to ‘explore our boundaries [by creating] the next generation of technologies that can read and write from the most powerful tool we have—the human brain. [The company is] building a non-invasive mind/body/machine interface (MBMI) to improve, evolve and extend human cognition’ is not about implantables.(11) The company is focusing on wearables given that Johnson feels the road to mainstream adoption of implanted BMIs is way too long.(12)
And, despite Elon Musk’s legendary drive for fast fails and rapid results, it may be that Johnson has a point. After all, wearable tech is very much established because it is something from which we can distance ourselves if necessary. We can take off that Apple Watch, remove the Fitbit, and set aside the augmented reality headsets and body mounted sensors. We can, should we chose, take a break from the technology, return from the hectic of the digital to the relative peace of the analog, and step away from the endless data stream processing and analysis. We can, in short, claim back the portion of our lives – and our data – demanded by our advanced communications technology. That is our choice.
But in the event of implanted devices, that choice is no longer available to us. And this is a point we should hold in the forefront of our minds as we watch developments unfold. Yes, these devices are astoundingly advanced and are engineered in some of the most state-of-the-art cleanroom facilities by the most respected scientists in the field. But the implications of devices planted directly into the human brain to aid those desiring a fully permeable boundary – or indeed no boundary at all – between human consciousness and artificial intelligence are complex, nuanced, and ultimately potentially sinister. Do we really want to risk our human agency in pursuit of a quicker form of (brain-to-brain) communication? Do we accept the possible danger of brain-jacking? What about mind control? Ethical concerns regarding the widespread acceptance of these categories of device are largely untouched. We’ve merely scratched the surface and there are currently more questions than answers.
Unless you know better, of course. And in that case, we’d be open to some brain-to-brain communication so that we can peer behind the veil. Otherwise, how about letting us know your thoughts in the traditional way – that is to say, in the comments below?
- For a news report showing implantation of chips, see https://www.today.com/video/watch-employees-get-microchip-implants-live-on-today-1014527555766