Neuroscience and computing are advancing faster than ever. Here’s what we can look forward to.
Scientists have long known that seeing, imagining, and remembering look similar in the brain. When you see or remember an apple, the part of your brain that knows what an apple looks like will become active, whether or not there’s an apple in front of you.
This activity is strong enough that scientists can even scan for it in patients who are in a coma.
Theoretically, a recording device could also read brain activity and play the pattern back to you, causing you to see, think, or feel whatever was on your mind while it was recording.
Micah Lee at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sees some practical problems with this sort of technology. “While cyberpunk fiction makes it seem like cybernetic implants will be all the rage in the coming decades, this sort of implant has a huge problem,” he told Heathline. “They’re expensive and hard on your body to upgrade, and of course we’re all going to want to next big thing as soon as it’s released.”
By recording your memories on an external device, you’ll be able to protect them from the problem of human memory: forgetting. As long as your storage device remains intact, the memories will never fade, and you’ll be able to retrieve them anytime you please.
Dr. Theodore Berger has developed a prosthetic hippocampus, a region of the brain that allows us to form new memories. He removed the hippocampus from rats and replaced it with his prosthesis, then taught the rats to run a maze. When he turned the device off, the rats forgot they’d ever seen the maze before, and remembered again when he turned it back on.
Future tests will reveal whether memories can be transferred between rats using these devices. Berger hopes to begin human testing within five years.
Dr. Miguel Nicolelis has used electrodes to remotely connect the brains of two rats. One rat had to learn a task, while the second rat could only learn from the brain signals it received from the first rat. Very quickly, the rats learned to cooperate, with the first rat sharpening its brain signal, and the second rat learning to interpret it. The second rat even began to map the first rat’s whiskers to sensory regions in its brain.
Such brain sharing is only as accurate as the technology behind it, but Dr. Bettina Sorger is working on it. “These possibilities made me wonder whether fMRI could be used to form letters, and thus make communication possible without any form of movement,” she said in a press release. She’s invented a scanning technique that lets subjects send out 27 unique brain signals, each mapped to a letter of the alphabet.
And why stop at sending words? Dr. Nathan Spreng wants to know what you’re feeling, too. He ran a study in which he taught participants about four people with different personalities, and recorded how they felt using fMRI. “When we looked at our data, we were shocked that we could successfully decode who our participants were thinking about based on their brain activity,” said Spreng in a press release.
While you won’t be controlling any of the giant robotic “jaeger’s” in Pacific Rim anytime soon, you might get to control a surrogate body within your lifetime. Robots can already run and jump, and prosthetic hands grow more dexterous every year.
But a robotic body is only half an experience unless you can also see and feel what it does. Bionic eyes are improving as scientists install cameras or light sensitive, retina-like layers in the eyes and send the signal to the visual processing areas of a subject’s brain.
And scientists like Dr. Takao Someya are working on thin, flexible bionic skin that can detect changes in temperature and pressure. This skin could be wrapped around a prosthetic limb to allow for a sense of touch, or implanted directly into a person suffering from skin or nerve damage.
If you use a brain implant, a hacker might be able to turn it against you. Dr. Jack Gallant has developed a scan to tell what you’re looking at just by viewing your brain activity. And a hacker might not be there just to look. Dr. Rajesh Rao and Dr. Andrea Stocco released a study earlier this month, showing that Rao was able to directly control Stocco’s hands using a shared electrode network.
“There are definitely serious security issues with this type of technology, and some of these issues are already a reality,” says Lee. “Some pacemakers come with wireless devices so that the firmware can be upgraded without requiring surgery, and it turns out that hackers can use this to remotely trigger heart-attacks. As people begin to use robotic hearing aids that can run apps, malicious hackers will turn them into eavesdropping devices and listen to everything you listen to.”
While hackers and computer security will always remain in a Red Queen race, the next half-century will yield more breakthroughs in bionics and cybernetics, as the line between science and science fiction continues to blur.