Mind-reading and Cyborgs: When Science Fiction Turns Into Reality

Cyborgs and mind reading…sounds farfetched and straight out of a science fiction novel, right? Not quite. There have been quite some advances in neuroscience and artificial intelligence that make the possibility of humans recording their thoughts, communicating telepathically and controlling machines with their minds by simply thinking, not so farfetched. 

There have been several discussions on the relation between technology and the brain that started all the way back in 1948 when Norbert Wiener released his book on cybernetics. Since then there have been several efforts to connect the brain with technology. 

In fact, cyborgs already started existing a long time ago when scientists started inserting electric devices into animals. Scientists have been able to remotely control animals since 1963 when Rodríguez Delgado stepped into a ring with a bull and was able to stop it from charging at him using his remote control. 

Scientists have now been able to put electrodes into the brains of paralyzed patients. These electrodes help patients move a robotic limb by thinking. Those who lost their ability to speak as well are assisted with the help of Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) that transmit electrical signals to computers. Later on, these electrical signals are used to create synthesized speech solely based on information from neural activity of the brain. Even more surprising is the device AlterEgo created by MIT Media Lab, which is a non-invasive device, that requires no surgery that can read the words users are thinking and help them directly interact with technology.


Electrodes put in the brain AKA BCIs Source

What’s more is that, Elon Musk has established his company, Neuralink with the aim of advancing brain computer interfaces. He started it with the aim of creating neuroprosthetics to help people with medical conditions. However, the long term goal is to be able to keep up with the advances of AI.  He argues that humans are already cyborgs, humans and technology nowadays are almost inseparable. He imagines a future in which humans will no longer have to use their devices by moving their fingers but by simply thinking. Humans can now move cursors across a screen while being connected to an electroencephalogram. Although it is a very basic movement, it is predicted that we’ll be able to advance this a lot more in the future. 

Strides are being made in the field of mind-reading as well. Jack Gallant, Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, describes the field of brain decoding. Scientists now use fMRI to detect brain activity in the visual cortex. Scientists record the brain activity of participants as they view images. This brain activity is later on used to reconstruct those images using deep neural networks. There are even efforts to be able to read dreams using this method. In a video by Vsauce, he shows the work of Dr. Yukiyasu Kamitani from Kyoto University who aims to be able to reconstruct images from neural activity of people dreaming in their sleep.


Source reconstructed images from neural activity by a researcher from Kyoto University

Though the prospect of being able to read minds and having our brains directly controlling technology is very exciting, there are concerns regarding privacy. This technology sure would have lots of benefits to people who feel trapped within their bodies unable to communicate with others due to their medical conditions, however, this technology if advanced even further in the future can have sinister applications. Some people are, rightfully concerned that soon we’ll be living an Orwellian nightmare and the government will soon have access to our thoughts. Companies can potentially use information of brain activity in market research. there are even discussions of the possibility of using brain decoding technology to be able to tell if someone is lying or not in legal systems. These issues gave rise to the field of neuroethics where researchers are discussing the moral implications of our increased understanding of the brain. 

It is important for the public to keep up and know about these advances in technology that may change our lives forever and we should engage in discussions about how the use of this technology will be regulated sooner than later and consider its implications and effects on our daily lives. 

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