The lame walk again and we are becoming happier and happier – On the potential of modern neuro-technologies
In Mark 2: 1-12 (Mt 9: 1-8, Lu 5: 17-26) Jesus of Nazareth heals a paralytic: „I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home. He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all”.What for two millennia has been presented to Christians around the world as a biblical miracle, today moves more and more into the realm of scientific and technical feasibility. With the growing understanding of how our central nervous system operates, the question arises whether the control of body movements – as well as our thinking as well as emotions –can be technically achieved with the help of out-of-the body-devices. Thus, the interaction of the brain with machines through so called “brain-computer interfaces“ is already on the agenda of neuroscientists and brain technologists. As fascinatingas this new technological field is,as diverse are its goals, ranging from therapeutic treatment of brain disorders, body paralysis or emotional distress, to changing our feelings and increasing our very physical and intellectual performance.
Above all, patients such as deaf, blind, paralyzed, paraplegic and people with memory problems will benefit the most from the latest developments in the interplay of neurobiology and computers. First interfaces that emit electrical signals via electrodes into the brain (so called Cochlea-implants)were introducedto deaf patientsalready some 40 years ago. But the interaction of our brain with machines also for healthy people in order to improve their intellectual abilities such as memory and speed of thought has for long been on the agenda of neuroscientists.Meanwhile the transfer of real informational content from the brain onto a machine has been achieved. The signals of dozens of neurons in the motor cortex (responsible for the coordination of body movements) can be read which potentially enables paraplegics to control prostheses by the mere power of their thought..For a few years it has been possible to send Twitter messages by recording the respective thoughts in an EEG.The possibility to enable an almost completely paralyzed person to walk again or to a write Twitter message solely by thinking about itis based on the realization that the meremental ideas of movements or actions are sufficient to measurably alter brain activity.Thus the idea of moving the left foot leads to a different activation patterns than the idea of moving the right hand.
Where does the fantasy about such possible future technologies manifest itself more strongly than in Silicon Valley? Entrepreneur and visionary Elon Musk has now presented the first successful milestones of his new company Neuralink. He gave the public a detailed technical description of the hardware behind Neuralink’s new brain-computer interface, which is to be implanted into the human brain by a small surgical intervention through the skull. The 4x4mm chip consists of dozens of very thin cables that collect signals from the brain and transmit this information to a computer. The tiny probe contains more than 3,000 electrodes that can record the activity of more than 1,000 neurons. According to Musk, a monkey had thus been able to control a computer with his thoughts. The company has requested permission from the US regulatory authorities to begin initial studies with paralyzed people. But Musk’s visions go far beyond that: He describes a future „superhuman cognition“ in which such interfaces are used, to for example control smartphones and other devices without touching them. Musk’s ultimate goal, however, is the „symbiosis of our brain with artificial intelligence”.
Also our emotions have increasingly become a target of research efforts in the field.While medical and therapeutic aspects have also here been the base of scientific endeavors, according to many neuroscientistsa particularly great potential for application to healthy people are “neurochips” which promise to improve the mood, foster wellbeing, increase intelligence, or even promote permanent happiness. Under the resounding phrase “brain doping” the public media have already picked up on the issue of electrical manipulation of the brain.
So far those “chips in the brain” that upon a “push of a button” make us more smart, attentive or happy remaina utopia. But further steps towards mechanization and digitalization of our bodiesand minds are not only realistic, but have already been initiated. They have the potential to change our lives and our views on the world and on human nature much more significantly than all philosophical doctrines, psychological theories or spiritual practices of the past and present.