Virtual reality and consciousness technologies- The new possibilities of brain-computer interfaces

Not just since the new Pokémon craze or the Gamescom exhibition seems virtual reality (VR) currently on everyone’s lips. Just a few weeks ago it had already been the topic of this blog. We thus saw that an important philosophical insight from our experience with VR is that the mental image of ourselves (what the philosopher Thomas Metzinger calls our „phenomenal self-model“) is far from stable. It can be manipulated relatively easily (an insight one can also obtain by the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs). We could even say that the entire internal model of ourselves as a totality is of virtual nature. It is thus not surprising that „with appropriate setups“ we can easily identify ourselves with an artificial body image, a so-called „Avatar, instead of our biological body.

In fact, the human phenomenal self-model can attach itselfin many ways to artificial senses and organs. We then actually feel the artificial object as a part of our body. Neuro researchers speak of a „virtual embodiment“. In the following we want to go into more detail of the aforementioned „appropriate setups“ with which this can be achieved. We thus recognize a new powerful development from a neuro- a consciousness-technology (as we may call virtual realities technologies) that is surely worth a closer look: do called „brain-computer interfaces“ (BCIs). Thus the transmission of specific information directly from our brain to a machine is no longer a vision of science fiction, but might soon become an everyday reality. The feedback of such information backinto our brains makes amazing things happen with our consciousness.

At first paralyzed walk again – by the pure power of thought. This is possible in that an implanted chip reads the activation pattern of the brain and converts these into commands to an exoskeleton. Thus with BCI technologies even the worst nightmare of a person could become more bearable: the“locked-in syndrome”. After a stroke, the US-American Cathy Hutchinson was imprisoned for 14 years in her body. She had lost all control over their muscles and bodily functions. Being continuously conscious she could only move her eyelids. In 2012, scientists had the brain of the 58-year-old connected to a robotic arm. She learned to control the movements of the arm by her thoughts, and eventually she was able to grab a water bottle and lead it to her mouth. Her desire to walk could soon come true. What has been presented as a biblical miracle to Christians around the world for two millennia, is today technically feasible.

Turning to communication. It is now possible to create Twitter messages purely from the thought of a person and then send them to the cell phone of a recipient. In principle, this is actually quite simple: an EEG electrode caprecords the brain activity of the sender while she browses through the relevant letters on a screen. Her brain signals are then converted into the desired message. In fact, such „brain-typewriters“ are already commercially available: Under the product name „intendiX“ the company Guger for example provides an appropriate EEG cap, with which one can record by thought up to 10 letters per minute. So young people may soon not need to take a phone into their hand to tell their parents that they want to come home an hour later in the evening. They will just think of it – and the information will reach the recipient. That new neuro-technologies can also be plenty fun shows the Japanese company “Neuro Wear”: It developed a special EEG electrode caps in the form of cat ears which stand up, if something has caught the attention of the wearer, for example, a romantic interest in another person. A real party hit.

Finally, there is the control of machines via virtual reality. Already were monkeys, after appropriate microelectrodes were implanted in their motor cortex, enabled to control two virtual arms on a computer screen only by the thought processes in their brain. To this end, a sensor with several hundred tiny electrodes was implanted into the cortex of a rhesus monkey lady. The animal then learnt to control a robot arm with a joystick. However, the key feature was that the robotic arm on the screen did not respond directly to the commands of the joystick, but to the signals from the monkey’s brain as they had been processed by a computer program. Suddenly the monkey lady let go of the joystick and steered the arm without aid. She had found out that she can move it by means of their thoughts only, as if it was her third arm. Upon virtual touch of the Avatar-arm the neurons in the animalbrainfired in a way as if their own limb had been touched. The monkey had thus integrated the movements of the avatar into its own internal body image. It took the digital arm as part of its body.

That humans can also control a robot by thoughts alone, even if the latter is located elsewhere, has recently been shown by Israeli and French researchers: They recorded with an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner the imagination of movements in the mind of a subject and translated the signals into commands for a humanoid robots thousands of kilometers away, which led the machine to perform corresponding physical actions. The trick was that the subjectwas given the perspective of the robotby means of a data glasses using a camera that was placed on the robot’s head. Over time, the man integrated the robot avatar into his self-model. He perceived the robot as part of his own body. In other words, he embodied himself virtually therein.

Virtual reality and neuro-technologies can cause new states of consciousness by acting directly upon the functional layers of our self-model. Thus virtual embodiments outside our biological bodies may soon enable fascinating applications in which our self-model couples to corresponding avatars. Avatars and the recording of brain activity will then enable the thought based control of all sorts of robots and other machines. First implementation are, as we have seen, already out there.

As fascinating as these technologies are, asintimidating are some of the conceivable scenarios they lead to. What happens, for instance, when with the help of avatars and purely through your power of thought robots do something you consciously would not want to happen, e.g. become violent because the robots realize your innermost fantasies of violence? Are you then responsible for this? Or may we soon control drones or war robot with the help of avatars? This would be a new kind of warfare. With the US drone attacks in Pakistan and other countries, the first manifestations of such have already begun. But the most dramatic development would be, when several people can get mentally connected via BCIs and virtual embodiments.

With monkeys this has already been achieved. The Brazilian neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis had monkeys networked via BCIs in separate cabins and control a virtual arm solely by their thoughts to work on a joint task. Each of the three monkeys was able to control only two of the three dimensions, which were displayed to him on a screen. In order for the arm to move in the right direction, the three monkeys had to work together. In the monkeys’ effort to reach a certain goal the neurons in their brains fired in resonance as the scientists were able to measure. This means nothing less than that the animals had synchronized their brain activity. The neurons in the three monkeys’ brains behaved as if they belonged to one brain.

Nicolelis believes that one day information can flow directly from one human brain to another in real time, and that a network of such affiliated brains could spread as fast as once did the Internet. He predicts the day will come on which the minds of human beings no longer exchange information via voices, keyboards or phones, but through the direct exchange of their neuronal activities. Such a network, which for example sends emails simply by thought or one day enables the exchange of the entire width of sensory experiences, emotions, memories or thoughts, he calls “Brain-Net” (readers of the German writer Andreas Eschbach will know such future scenario already. In his trilogy „Black Out“, „Hide Out“ and „Time Out“ (2010-2012) Eschbach describes a world full of people whose minds interact directly via brain implanted chips. The individuals are forced to exist within a central hyper-consciousness, the so-called „coherence“, which simultaneously controls all their thoughts).

We may be in for quite a lot. Of course, these developments raise massive ethical and questions. What about the responsibility of our actions in the virtual space? How can we check that the avatars are not acting on the basis of our unconscious impulses? What will happen to our autonomy when we connect with other avatars? Where exactly do we need to put up a stop sign “so far and no further“? The described developments open up yet another large-scale employment field for practical philosophers.

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