May 2017 Market Watch
With computers, science and medicine making advancements every day, combining electronics with the human mind may be the next big step. Already, Facebook is developing a neural interface that would enable you to control their software with your mind, while Elon Musk is preaching about transcending the limitations of human body by merging with the machines to ensure the survival and relevance of humans as species. To explore the possibilities of human-machine interfaces of the future, Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus in neurophysiology and co-inventor of the cochlear implant, was interviewed. He is now a co-founder and chief scientific officer at Posit Science, which provides brain fitness software and services through its BRAINHQ platform. The really fascinating thing about the cochlear implant is that it relies on brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to change chemically, structurally and functionally in response to sensory and other input. Because of that, Merzenich and many others could connect the implant to just a few of 3,000 possible connection points in the patient’s cochlea, and the brain adapted, filling in the missing information and providing a better sound quality for the patient.
Q: From cyberpunk novels to modern medicine, humans have always wanted to interface with machines in new and revolutionary ways. What is the current state of neural implants and human-computer neural interfaces, and how they can help us be better, faster and stronger?
A: This is a field where we could see rapid advances, both in translating the real world to our brains, as we did in the cochlear implant, and in translating our thoughts into action in the real world, as Facebook proposes to do with neural caps that “read” our thoughts. Notable works in this area include Brainport, developed by Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita to restore vision to the blind; Braingate, developed by scientists at Brown to direct a robot arm using thought; and projects being explored by the Department of Defense to use imaging technology to better read people under interrogation.
Q: How do you see neural and other implants evolve during the next 20 years?
A: What we learned from the invention of the cochlear implant — basically the first implantable neural translation device — is that the brain will re-organise in response to input from the neural implant. As a result, we should conceptualise the role of that brain plasticity at the same time as we are designing new types of neural implants, because they will work hand in hand.
Q: What are the biggest challenges for medicine, science and technology concerning the development of the neural interfaces and implants in general that we’re facing today?
A: These technologies are actually well within reach. Ever-advancing forms of brain imaging have been used in academic settings for years, and scientists developed versions of ways to interpret senses without the primary biological mechanism for those senses over 30 years ago. The real challenge is making this science practical: How can a brain be trained to learn how to control these new devices?
Q: Elon Musk claims humans must merge with machines or become irrelevant in the age of artificial intelligence. He’s acquired Neuralink, a company that develops the neural interface-related technology, to accomplish this goal and create a direct link between brain and the computer. Is this the direction in which you feel humanity should be going, or are we losing what makes us human by attaching ourselves to these devices?
A: We’re already merging with machines. We’re just using our eyes and ears to get the information directly from our phones. Already many people store a chunk of their memory — contact information, maps — in their “exocortex,” a cloud-linked phone that stores memory for them, and transmits information to their brain through high-resolution screens and naturalistic speech synthesis. I doubt we need a direct neural connection when our eyes and ears already offer such high-bandwidth and high-fidelity pathways straight to our brains. Every new form of communication, from writing to the telephone to the web, changes human culture and human brains. An important question is what impact will using these new devices have on our brains — and what it means to be human. Many people would now say that reading and writing is an essential form of our humanity, but those abilities are actually rather recent developments in human history. Technological advances can usually be used either for good or bad purposes; however, history shows we generally use them to improve the human condition. To me, that is the moral purpose of science.
Q: How does Facebook plan to “read our mind”?
A: It appears that Facebook is exploring cutting-edge imaging technology to measure brain activity in ways that don’t require a hole in your head. They want to see what patterns of brain activity are correlated with what thoughts or actions. The idea is that when they see a specific pattern of brain activity they know is associated with the idea “open Facebook on my phone,” for example, your phone will open Facebook without you having to click on the icon. Research scientists are already doing this in academic settings; scientists recently showed that they could identify what image a person was looking at by observing the patterns of their brain activity - which is getting pretty close to mind-reading! The big challenge will be getting a useful level of accuracy in the real world, so that when you think “open Facebook on my phone” it doesn’t open an e-book with the word Face in the title. Anyone who has used speech recognition on a phone knows what I mean.
Q: Can neuroimaging caps be used to read our innermost thoughts? Are there any privacy concerns once human-machine interfaces get perfected?
A: Probably not our “innermost” thoughts at this point, but we already have the ability, in a limited way, to build machines that can be controlled by thoughts. This technology will continue to improve. It is really not as science fiction as it seems to expect that machines can read your brain in a manner that produces useful information. And, yes, of course, privacy is a concern, just as it has been since the invention of the lie detector. With our lives increasingly discoverable online, there are likely more immediate privacy concerns than this still-theoretical one, but how we use new technology and its ripple effects are important issues.
Q: We can enhance our brains not only through external braintech, but also through generation of new neural pathways — learning and training. Tell us a bit about how your BRAINHQ platform works and how it is different from the plethora of other quiz apps that are out there right now.
A: Posit Science offers plasticity-based brain exercises to the public through BrainHQ.com and through free BrainHQ iOS apps. Currently, the BrainHQ platform hosts 29 exercises targeted at most major brain systems. What makes BrainHQ unique is the science behind it. A recent study found most brain training products have zero peer-reviewed articles showing that they work. At the other end of the spectrum, BrainHQ exercises and assessments have shown benefits in more than 140 peer-reviewed science and medical journal articles. Exercises in BrainHQ have been shown to improve standard measures of cognition (e.g., speed, attention, memory) with benefits that transfer to many real world activities (e.g., balance, driving, everyday tasks) and quality of life (e.g, mood, confidence, self-rated health).