Chapter 10: The New Rules of the Brain, Business, and Beyond
How will the Internet make our brains more powerful? To answer that, I return to the topic of the book’s preface: BrainGate. Recall that with BrainGate, computer chips are being implanted into people’s brains, giving them the power to control electrical devices and computers using nothing more than their thoughts. Companies like BrainGate are actively trying to link our brains to the Internet.
A number of companies are now doing this with video games. A company called Emotiv has a wearable helmet that uses EEG (a technical name for electrodes that are stuck to your forehead) to measure brain waves.Emotiv uses those brain waves to interface with online games. Imagine playing Pacman with your mind; that is what the founders of Emotiv envisioned and are now implementing.
Zeo, a company that I helped start, has a wearable EEG headband that measures brain waves.12 Its first product is an alarm clock that wakes you up in the earliest stage of sleep so that you don’t feel groggy in the morning. As the Boston Globe put it, “Rather than waking you up at a precise time—say, 6:30 a.m.—the headband would monitor your brain waves using special sensors, and wake you up sometime in the half-hour leading up to 6:30 when you were in a light phase of sleep, which is preferable to being jolted out of deep sleep.” But it is more than that. Zeo also acts as an online sleep coach, recording data, providing you with a sleep score, and comparing your sleep patterns to those of others.
The problem in each of these cases, though, is that the technology is external and so the brain waves that are being measured are sparse. For Zeo, our feedback is “good enough” for an alarm clock and other consumer products. For Emotiv, the limited input from the brain is not sufficient, so it is supplemented with face and eye recognition.
But BrainGate is different. At roughly one-third the size of a penny, our implantable device directly attaches to neurons in the motor cortex of the brain. It uses one hundred electrodes roughly the width of a human hair to record brain activity across a small number of neurons. Although BrainGate requires brain surgery, the performance is like nothing before seen. Once the device is implanted, people are able to literally turn thoughts into action. As CNN reported in 2004 when our first microchip was implanted into the brain of a twenty-five-year-old quadriplegic man, “He can . . .turn lights on and off and control a television, all while talking and
moving his head.”
Once you have an implanted device like this, the limits of the human brain become unbounded. In many ways, you are freed from the limitations of your body. You can connect your brain to the Internet, to a robot, or to a bionic arm. BrainGate could as easily be used to control a nuclear submarine as a wheelchair or a car. As a Wired reporter remarked after spending time with the first BrainGate patient, “In theory, once you can control a computer cursor, you can do anything from drawing circles to piloting a battleship.”
As with any great innovation, the lines of science and science fiction are being blurred. There is now a real possibility of downloading “memory implants” or retrieving information wirelessly from the Internet. Recall that the Google founders envisioned a future with “the entirety of the world’s information as just one of our thoughts.” We may be getting a bit ahead of ourselves, but that future may become a reality with BrainGate.
This technology has the potential to be revolutionary for those who are severely disabled. It will enable bionics, restore speech, and give disabled people unimaginable access to a world that the able-bodied take for granted. How will BrainGate change the world for the rest of us? I can’t say, but it is fun to imagine.