For a couple of years, I worked as an editor for scientific research papers. Most of the papers I worked on were from China, Japan, and South Korea. There were a preponderance of papers on cancer and other medical research. However, the Chinese research papers were largely focused on improvements in solar panels. Most of the time, the work required trudging through details on cell biology or lengthy discourses on chemical reactions. Among all of these papers, one stood out. It was on a topic no one else seemed to be working on at the time. It was about how a team of researchers were able to control a remote controlled toy car with their brains.
The principle behind this was quite straightforward. Basically, the person working as the controller wore a headset that would pick up the electrical activity in his/her brain. The headset was, in turn, connected to a computer. The computer analyzed the controller’s brain activity when thet thought about certain commands. These commands were, start, stop, turn right, and turn left. The computer eventually learned how to pick out the correct command from background electrical activity and, then, send this command to the car which would then perform the required maneuver.
The hardest part for the researchers was teaching the human controller how to concentrate, However, after some training, 80% of people learned how to make the car do what they wanted it to do. And the more they practiced, the better they got. This work has since been duplicated and upgraded. The diagram below shows the basic setup from one such research team.
Since that time, brain controlled toy cars and drones have become more or less routine. The BCI (Brain Control Interface) has become less intrusive with few, if any, wires. Here’s an example from Emotiv.
In addition, some brain controlled devices have the brain signal receivers already incorporated into the device, so there is no need for an external computer.
This is a rapidly growing area and one that promises big profits for the firm that markets the right product. Attention to this area of research increased with the founding of Neurolink by, among others, Elon Musk in 2016.
Currently, brain control has been demonstrated in video games, in controlling prosthetic limbs, in typing, and in controlling smart devices. The use of external headsets is hampered by their limitations in picking up weak brain signals. To overcome this, brain implants can be used. These can be put under the skin or on the brain itself. These implants are not only used for picking up signals more easily. They can also be used to emit signals that target certain brain regions. Such signal-emitting implants are being used to help people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and depression. Musk’s Neurolink is more concerned with developing implants but for a different reason. Musk hopes that certain types of implants will enable humans to interface with computers to create “superhuman cognition”. Think of your brain being able to access the internet at will. In fact, such implants are now being used by some researchers to improve human memory.
Such enhanced learning comes with ethical considerations and security implications. Would the ability to afford the implantation of such enhancement devices lead to a society of the enhanced versus natural humans? Would corporations and governments be able to leverage our brain signals to read our thoughts and emotions? Would they or criminals be able to hack into these implants to make us react in certain ways or do things we never consciously wanted to do? These are troubling, but no longer abstract, questions.
Already, insects, mice, and pigeons have shown the ability to be controlled by implants. The military has shown a particular interest in this area since such controlled animals could be used as spies. But if people could be controlled, that would lead us in a whole different direction.
Although we are in the early stages, it does appear that some sort of brain to brain communication will eventually be possible. Marketers would love to be able to tap into a potential client’s emotional reactions to a product or ad. Such knowledge could lead to the manipulation of an individual’s behavior. These individuals may, for example, purchase a product or service without fully understanding why they did so.
Such manipulation could be either direct or indirect. Indirect manipulation of a brain implant would tailor an ad in real time to match the emotional state or personality of the viewer. Like any marketing ploy, there would be no guarantee of a purchase, but the chances for this occurring would certainly increase.
Direct manipulation via an implant would be far more sinister and is really what many worry about. Those with implants emitting electrical signals could have those signals ‘hacked’ or altered to gain control over individual decisions. In a marketing scenario, this could lead to forcing an individual to purchase something they never really considered purchasing.
However, what seems to be causing more concern is the potential for nefarious control of these devices by governments. Of course, such intracranial surveillance would hide under the banner of national security. Wouldn’t it be good to detect the plans of a terrorist before they could be put into action? Perhaps, the government could require certain potentially dangerous individuals to have implants, much like criminals on house arrest must wear ankle bracelets. Whatever the excuse, it would be the first step in the establishing of thought police. This could even be coupled with electronic thought control to prevent criminals from doing something malicious.
Keep in mind that common criminals might eventually learn how to manipulate these implants and monetize them. That’s just the way the cyber world has always evolved. All of this will, of course, spawn a huge implant security industry where signals from implants are scrambled to stop them from being compromised. As a Kaspersky report points out,
“Current vulnerabilities matter because the technology that exists today is the foundation for what will exist in the future. Although no attacks targeting neurostimulators have been observed in the wild – a fact that is not altogether surprising since the numbers currently in use worldwide are low, and many are implemented in controlled research settings, several points of weakness exist that will not be hard to exploit.”
In other words, those involved in the cyber world are already taking all of this seriously. This is no longer the realm of science fiction. It is now science fact. This all might be true, but it will take some time in persuading the general public that we have arrived at this crossroad of technological development. But you have been warned.