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When technology enters the brain

For decades, neuroscientists have been recording nerve cell activity in animals to study how the brain works. But some are trying to do more, trying to get humans to preserve and reproduce memories perfectly, or to replay video games in their heads. One day, people will even be able to summon a car just by thinking.

The advancement of human-machine connection technology is changing with each passing day, and there are many ways to progress. Some of these advances require improvements in external devices, such as devices that can show whether the wearer is hungry or bored, others that translate people’s intentions into actual language, or that can use nerve impulses to type.

Today, some paralyzed people are already validating such technologies. The technology, known as a “brain-computer interface,” converts thoughts into actions, allowing paralyzed people to shop online, communicate with others, and even use a prosthetic arm to pick up a cup to drink drinks. However, such technology has also raised concerns among some. Being able to clearly see brain activity, understand it, and even modify it, is indeed a boon for many people and helps improve their quality of life, but will this act of eavesdropping on neural signals go beyond medical applications? category, causing trouble to society?

Researchers and doctors have long sought ways to extract information directly from the human brain, rather than relying on speaking, writing or typing. Such technology could be great for people with disabilities who are physically immobile or unable to speak. Electrodes implanted in the brain can record signals in motor areas of the brain, allowing some people to live a better quality of life by controlling prostheses with signals.

In January 2019, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the United States implanted electrodes into the brain of a disabled person. The man, Chemielevski, was unable to use his arms and legs properly after a surfing accident. Now, using signals from both sides of the brain, Cemilevsky is able to freely control both prosthetic arms. Using electrodes implanted on both sides of the brain, he controls the feeding of two robotic arms, one of which handles the knife and the other holds the fork.

Meanwhile, other researchers have decoded language from the brain signals of a paralyzed person with aphasia. The researchers gave the man a computer that could output information using only brain signals, and when he saw the words “Would you like a drink of water” on the computer screen, his brain signals were immediately translated into words: ” No, I’m not thirsty.” The researchers described the technique on November 19, 2020, at a symposium hosted by Columbia University.

A helmet shows where the brain’s nerve cells are active, providing clues about mental processes. Currently, researchers use it to study concussions, language and dreaming phenomena

However, until now, experiments to extract information from the brain have often required bulky equipment and powerful computing power. At least for now, any attempt to get into your brain can easily be stopped by a difficult problem.

Rafael Justi, a neurobiologist at Columbia University in New York, thinks their experiment has come very close to being able to extract private information from people’s brains. According to the scientist, research is already trying to decode what people are watching and the words they hear through brain activity. In addition, scientists have created a helmet that, much like a portable brain scanner, shows activity in certain areas of the brain.

Although currently the relevant companies can only build our behavioral profiles through our behavior, such as our clicks and purchase records, the algorithms used for prediction can make good judgments on our thoughts, behaviors and preferences. But the future is more than that. With the neural data collected by neurotechnology, these companies may take the guesswork out of it, and they’ll have information that actually comes from your brain. In the future, the technology could even reveal what people are thinking in their subconscious minds. This creates an ethical dilemma.

Human-machine connectivity technology can not only read the activity of the human brain, but also change it. For example, people can use this technology to detect the imminent state of epilepsy patients, and prevent and stop them. Researchers are even trying to use the technology to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction and depression, which could lead to huge human benefits. But the ability to precisely alter the activity of the human brain and, accordingly, people’s behavior, has also unnerved many.

Although current technology cannot manipulate human behavior through the human brain, researchers have created hallucinations in the brains of mice. In the experiments, the scientists used a technique called “optogenetics” to stimulate nerve cells in mice with light, allowing the mice to “see” lines that weren’t there. The mice behaved as if they actually had these lines in front of their eyes.

All these advancements are based on the current technological background. Marcelo Ianka, a bioethicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, points out that the desire to change one’s mind is not new, because winning hearts and minds is at the heart of advertising and politics, and the purpose of debate is to convince others. The problem now, however, is that technology that can alter human brain activity with just a little push takes the risk of manipulating people’s thoughts and behaviors to a new level. As this technology becomes a reality step by step, people will become more and more sensitive to the ethical issues of mining human brain data, and heated discussions and debates will follow. While this is unlikely to slow advances in neurotechnology, careful consideration of these questions may help to predict what will happen next, helping humans preserve our most human parts. Only by rationally responding to the arrival of new technologies can we win a better future for mankind.

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