It happened to me several time as I took questions after a talk on the future of technology to answer the question: “will we ever be able to insert a chip in our brain to increase our intelligence, to know things without having to study them…?”. And I always replied that no, that will remain impossible.
There are many reasons for this claim, and I should say some are rooted in the (false) preconception that “thoughts” are something different from matter. Although scientists are now convinced that thoughts are the phenotype of a connection network of neurones it remains a difficult step to take and digest. Most reasons, though, are technical and they related to the sheer complexity of our brain and of the huge diversity of brains (that is you cannot pin point a set of neurones and say: “those are the one containing the concept of -apple-” and even go farther saying that those same neurones will be present in any other brain having the concept of “apple”.
What we have been able to do, through brain-computer-interfaces, BCI, is to provide stimuli to a brain to activate it in a certain direction (it is something that substitute our sensorial system in creating inputs, it does not substitute brain functions). We have also been able, more so in these last years, to interpret some brain outputs and activate artificial limbs. Again, it is not substituting parts of the brain but work at the edges of the motor system.
I remember the words of a country song saying “you can lead a heart to love but you can’t make it fall”. Well, it compares pretty well with the state of our capabilities with brains….
But now I read a news that is forcing me to reconsider the boundary of impossibility. Progress in these last few years has indeed started to fuzzy those boundaries. There are several technical advances that are blurring the limits of what can be done:
- connectomics is progressing towards a complete mapping of neural circuits. A full brain connectivity map can be expected within this decade
- protonics has found a way for direct communications between chips and cells
- fMRI is making clearer what is going on in the brain
- nano-instruments (nanoelectrodes) can now pinpoint the activity of single neurones.
- progress in computational capacity and in the management of trillion of data
The paper reports on an experiment done by researchers at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They have managed to implant a chip to retrieve information from one part of the brain of a monkey and pass it on to another part overcoming a broken link. A little bit like retrieving a memory of something to act on it.
Sam Deadwyler, one of the team researchers, is speculating that in just a few years this kind of chips may find application in patients having brain disorders. The chip would encode some reasoning engine derived from healthy brains that could be used to overcome the disability of that brain. Patients suffering from a variety of disorders may benefit from this.
And looking down the lane, think about those times when you had that name on the tip of your tongue and just couldn’t come to grasp it. Well, may be a chip of this kind, in the future, may come to your help.
This is something completely new, with respect to what has been done so far in terms of brain chip interactions. Although we are still very far from the day when one will go on the web to download the history of the Roman empire to upload it on his brain for that school test coming up tomorrow it is getting just a bit more difficult to declare that such a day will never ever come!