Creel O’Neil

By some degree of separation we know someone who bears the burden of a lost limb or element of paralysis. We’ve all felt the frustration of not being able to crunch that equation with the horsepower we have in our own brains, forcing us to turn to calculators or-if you’re a scientist-supercomputers. Most of us have felt the frustration of not being able to execute a move exactly as envisioned in a video game. Or, we wish we could have a greater element of control over the digital and mechanistic elements of our world. Some within the defense sector express the desire to be able to remove the man from the battlefield, but keep him in control of the machine taking his place. These may seem like pipe dreams, but unannounced to the majority of the public are scientists, researchers and companies forging ahead into a murky and open-ended frontier. They are taking us quickly into the age where man and machine begin to meld, or what the futurist Ray Kurzweil calls the “Singularity.”

As far-fetched as it may seem, there has been amazing progress on enhancing the brains capabilities through computer and machine interfaces. These advancements will one day allow the paralyzed to walk, give the average human superhuman mental capabilities, allow for us to control machines by thought, write computer programs in our minds and expand the boundaries of our imaginations. For instance, imagine being able to sit in your living room and change the channel on your television, control the cursor on your computer, adjust the volume, turn on the lights and carry on a conversation with you guests all at the same time. Sound like the material of a science fiction novel? Indeed it does, but unfortunately for fiction writers, this has already happened.

Thanks to the “BrainGate” interface (a product created by Cyberkinetics), a 25-year-old quadriplegic successfully did all of those things in 2004. These brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) and brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are still in their preliminary stages, but the results are absolutely astounding. More recently, a man almost completely paralyzed by a stroke (he could only move his eyes and eyelids) was fitted with an implant. Though the interface is currently large and cumbersome, the man was able to spell out phrases and control the cursor on the screen simply by thinking. Amazingly, the man said he felt nothing while doing it. As if it were the same sort of second nature we experience in breathing. Prior to all of this, in 2000 a monkey named Belle successfully controlled a robotic arm through a BCI. In the first tests she controlled the arm right there in the lab. In the later tests however, she controlled the same arm but thousands of miles away and through the Internet.

The implications of such a meshing of man and machine are staggering. Futurists used to envision dystopian worlds of robots powered by artificial intelligence fighting humans in epic battles. The real future may be much different. A world where man and machine become one and nearly the same. The human could control many machines at once by programming them with their own mind on the spot. Or, one could crunch amazingly difficult equations without the assistance of an external computer, augmenting the natural ingenuity and imagination of the mind with unparalleled memory and computational power. Individuals suffering from a stroke, paralysis, loss of limbs, sight or hearing could all overcome their respective disabilities. As Discover magazine had titled a related article, it’s the “Rise of the Cyborgs.” Of course, all of this wonder and positive growth isn’t the only element flirting with this new step forward. For better or worse many of these projects are funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency. Such technologies would obviously be of benefit to the military and intelligence organizations.

But, there is always the persistent “Brave New World” question. In pursuing these technologies for our defense will we ultimately destroy the one thing that made us so strong: our naturally inquisitive mind? Will we regulate the mind through the machine in order to protect the way we want the world to be rather than using it to better understand and further shape the growth of our universe? These questions will inevitably rise if such technology is to ever hit mainstream use. As with anything humanity creates it carries the potential for great good, or ultimate destruction. It should be remembered though, that with every step forward we open the possibility of great triumph. Even with the use of our most inspiring knowledge for terrible deeds, we continue to push forward. Hopefully, we won’t let such wonderful and potentially frightening paths pull us down, but prop us up.