From mind-control brain implants to ID chips in your hand — can we make the human body do more?

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The climax of Star Wars Episode III: Return of the Jedi showed us that Darth Vader doesn’t wear that suit for fun. It keeps him alive. And innovation on Earth isn’t that different from a galaxy far far away. 

From eye glasses to implanted pacemakers, humans have invented ourselves into a longer and more comfortable existence. 


In doing so, we’ve been forced to have debates about biomedical ethics.

Neil Harbisson is a European cyborg with an antenna arcing over his head from the back of his skull. 

He suffers from achromatopsia, a state of total color blindness where he sees the world in shades of gray. 

The installation of Neil’s antenna allows him to “hear” colors, which he converts into art. 

Harbisson told The Guardian “I feel like I am technology. I don't think of my antenna as a device – it's a body part."

But society has hardly accepted Neil as he is, antenna and all. The same Guardian story notes that the camera at the end of Neil’s antenna was once ripped out by police. 

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Harbisson called it “one of the worst days of my life”. 

Stiff reactions to technology are common. Many studies have been published postulating as to whether smartphones are killing conversation or making us stupider. 

But the commonality of the smartphone has given nearly everyone who has one a second brain for communicating, logging memories and more. 

Compulsive reaching for your phone or a sense of longing without it compels the argument that we’re already cyborgs, a viewpoint shared by Elon Musk. 

BEYOND REPAIR

Should a person in an irreconcilable vegetative state be kept alive? 

There are arguments on both sides of every aisle, and that’s in reference to debates surrounding inventions that keep people alive or mitigate disabilities. 

What about innovations that alter human capability in otherwise healthy people?

Three Square Market, a software development company, saw more than half their employees voluntarily have chips implanted in between their thumb and forefinger. 

Chipped employees are able to open doors, make on-site purchases and access their computers with a simple wave. 

“If you’re a technology company, things like this are actually exciting,” Three Square Market CEO Todd Westby told CNBC.

This type of human-machine crossover is certainly awe-inspiring but, in the end, it’s not all that different from the technology behind an ID card that you swipe to enter–it’s just embedded in the body. It’s like a tattoo with a function. 

What about augmentations that interact with the brain? Tim Urban, author of the longform blog WaitButWhy, wrote that the thrust of the challenge in creating a brain-machine interface (BMI) is two pronged: getting information into and out of the brain via neurons. 

Some work has been done to successfully communicate with neurons, giving handicapped persons and amputees the chance to move artificial limbs. 

BrainGate, a neurotechnology company, successfully implanted a chip in the brain of a quadriplegic man. The chip interpreted the firing of select neurons as instructions and applied the movements to a computer cursor. 

As Urban notes, sending information into neurons is more difficult. This is why few robotic limbs are able to operate with the necessary delicacy of handling liquids. 

When we swirl sugar around in our coffee, we can feel the force of the fluids rotating with just the tips of our fingers. We can adjust the angle of our elbow accordingly because our nervous system is in full communication with itself. It’s harder with a third party.

INNOVATION THAT EXCITES

The BrainGate project that assisted the quadraplegic man was linked to just a pocket of the roughly 86billion neurons in the human brain. 

Neuralink, a BMI developer for which Musk serves as CEO, told Urban they hope to have “one million simultaneously recorded neurons.” 

Though it’s just a fraction of the total neurons in the brain, it represents boundless potential. It could bring the thinking power of a computer into a person. 

Two brain chips could be linked so that people can communicate telepathically–it's been done! Black Mirror episodes that seems inconceivable could become feasible. 

Relatedly, Musk said he “created [Neuralink] specifically to address the A.I. symbiosis problem, which I think is an existential threat,” meaning he thinks A.I. could be potentially disgruntled toward its human overlords and embark on a mission to make humans an endangered species. 

Neuralink is marching onward into the future and recently started recruiting for a clinical trial director that will oversee tests on humans. 

This may be troublesome to those who saw Musk get dragged for Neuralink's subjecting monkeys to serious physical trauma or interpret the recall of almost ¼ of all Tesla vehicles ever made as a sign of Musk’s overeagerness. 

Max Hodak, former President of Neuralink, said telling Musk something is impossible comes with the implicit understanding that something “better be limited by a law of physics or you are going to end up looking stupid.”

Jeff Lichtman, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University, kicks off one of his classes by posing “If understanding everything you needed to know about the brain is a mile, how far have we walked?” 

Though what we do know about the brain is impressive, Lichtman says that humanity has only walked about three inches of this metaphorical mile. 

There is a long track ahead–how fast will we walk it?

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