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Need to tread warily

Human trials of a brain-reading chip have elicited hope, but the concerns must be addressed

Need to tread warily

Tech Musk-eteer: Elon Musk knows how to turn curiosity projects into money-spinners. Reuters

Dinesh C. Sharma

Science Commentator

The Tribune Debate: Implications of neurotechnology

TECH billionaire Elon Musk, in his maverick style, made a surprise announcement on his X handle on January 29. It was not about Tesla, SpaceX or Hyperloop but a little-known startup, Neuralink, that he founded in 2016. This company has begun human trials of an implantable brain-reading chip. While several research groups in America and elsewhere have been working on brain-computer interface devices for decades and have tested some of them, the one by Neuralink is claimed to be the first that records information from individual neurons. The chip has tiny polymer threads that can record brain activity from 1,024 sites. No other research group or company has claimed such a large bandwidth of brain-computer communication.

It is natural for private companies to create hype around their technologies while downplaying the risks associated with invasive surgeries.

While Musk’s announcement may have appeared dramatic, Neuralink has been working on the technology for the past few years. It made public some details of the experiment in July 2019 in a closed-door meeting of the California Academy of Sciences. Data from ultra-tiny electrodes placed in the brains of rodents was presented by the research group. Musk casually revealed that the device had been planted into a monkey as well to allow it to control a computer with its brain. The technology consisted of a chip containing polymer threads to record electrical signals from neurons and convey them to a wireless device worn behind the ear. The chip could be implanted in the brain using a surgical robot. The technology, according to Musk, could help people paralysed as a result of spinal cord injuries communicate. He also claimed that the chip could help ‘cure’ certain diseases, including depression and schizophrenia.

Neuralink and others, such as Blackrock Neurotech and Synchron, are part of a growing startup segment often referred to as neurotech (neurotechnology) on the lines of fintech, edutech and agritech. Neurotech aims to measure and regulate the state of the human brain. Neurotech has two streams: non-invasive and invasive technologies.

Non-invasive technologies use electrodes and other devices to read brain activity from the surface of the skull and have been in vogue for a long time. Many neurotech products that are already in the market include EEG (electroencephalogram) devices that record brain activity and provide related data and transcranial stimulation contraptions that stimulate the brain to improve brain activity. The advent of artificial intelligence has added a new dimension to this line of research. For instance, researchers at the University of Technology, Sydney, have demonstrated a system that can decode silent thoughts and turn them into text without any implants in the brain. The system captures electrical brain activity through the scalp using an EEG and an AI algorithm that translates these signals into words and sentences by learning from large quantities of EEG data. It is being called Brain GPT.

Companies like Neuralink are working on invasive technologies that involve implants on the surface of the brain, inside it and other parts of the body. Shreyas Sen, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University, has invented a technology called Wi-R, which can establish an ‘internet’ within the body that external devices like smartphones, smartwatches and insulin pumps as well as implantable devices can use to communicate with one another. Sen has also put forth a brain implant concept that, in future, could help humans control technology with their thoughts. Wi-R uses electric signals operating at a frequency much lower than Bluetooth or other radio signals. These low-frequency signals are in the electro-quasistatic range on the electromagnetic spectrum and are accessible through a person’s skin. Sen and his students have formed a company, Ixana, to commercialise the inventions, which seek to use ‘mind control’ and ‘human touch’ for digital communication.

Brain implants are not just some fancy devices meant for nerds but can potentially help people suffering from a range of neurological conditions, spinal injuries, etc. Such implants are finding applications in people suffering from chronic epilepsy or those confined to wheelchairs or are not able to communicate because of spinal injuries. The combination of AI and implants offers a ray of hope for millions of such people around the world. Neurotech has vast opportunities in India, which has a huge burden of neurological conditions.

However, there are serious ethical and regulatory issues about neurotech. The human clinical trial of the brain implant that Neuralink has begun is shrouded in regulatory mystery. The US Food and Drug Administration has given it the go-ahead, but the mandatory details of the trial have not been shared, nor are the scientific goals of the trial known. An earlier application of the company had been rejected; so, it is necessary to know what has led to its approval now. For medical device regulators across the world, AI and neurotech pose many challenges. Many non-invasive products, such as electrode caps to treat migraine, are already in the market without any evidence or weak evidence of their efficacy, safety and quality.

This apart, new brain technologies raise ethical and human rights concerns. Much of the development in this sector is led by private companies that are accountable to their investors and shareholders. So, it is natural for them to create hype around their technologies while downplaying the risks associated with invasive surgeries, the high costs involved, the risk of infection, the long-term impact, the possible overheating of batteries and so on.

What happens to implants if the technology improves or the company that supplied them goes bust? Can such devices be mass-produced because all brains are not similar? In some cases in America, experimental implants had to be removed because the startup that put them in went out of business. Above all, we have to take into account the possibilities of misuse of brain devices for non-medical purposes. Regulators, policymakers and ethicists have to address such complex issues. There needs to be an informed public discourse on the technological possibilities as well as concerns instead of letting hype take over.

#Elon Musk #Tesla

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