I am a huge fan of the sci-fi genre. I have read Cat’s Cradle, Ender’s Game, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and seen movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix more times than I care to say. I am drawn to these fantastical visions of the future because I love predicting what our world and our species may look like in 50 or 100 years. As I discovered last night at a World Science Festival panel discussion, “Cells to Silicon: Your Brain in 2050,” science fiction’s vision of our future is often closer to reality than we may realize.
The discussion, moderated by radio and TV journalist Robert Krulwich, included neuroscientists John P. Donoghue and Sheila Nirenberg as well as research psychologist Gary Marcus and electrical engineer and computer scientist Michael M. Maharbiz. Each of these experts is helping to close the gap between science fiction and reality.
Donoghue described his groundbreaking work with Cathy Hutchinson, a paralyzed woman who was able to use a brain-computer interface device to move a mechanical arm towards a bottle of coffee, pick it up, and take a sip. The full house at Hunter College watched the video in awe. Donoghue explained how a sensor implanted inside Hutchinson’s motor cortex recorded electrochemical signals from nearby neurons and relayed these signals to a computer. The computer, which had been programmed to recognize the patterns produced in the brain for the basic movements of up, down, left, and right, relayed these messages to the mechanical arm. Although Donoghue acknowledged the device’s shortcomings—it was limited to four basic movements and lacked the fluidity of natural human motion—the entire panel agreed that this type of brain-computer interface could allow the human brain to operate a completely bionic body in the future.
Gary Marcus and Michael M. Maharbiz discussed research that would take a brain-computer interface one step further with the help of “neural dust.” Neural dust would consist of thousands of tiny wireless sensors implanted in the brain permanently. Marcus indicated that this type of technology could contribute to neural output—moving a robotic arm—and input, including potentially inserting information directly into the brain, like uploading a file to a computer.
Also concerned with input, Sheila Nirenberg’s research is tackling blindness. By mimicking the signal or input transmitted to the brain from the visual world, Nirenberg plans to recreate that image in the brain. She records and calculates the electrical patterns sent from the optic nerve in the retina to the brain and uses a chip to reproduce these signals. She has successfully done this with rats and believes developing this technology has the potential to cure blindness. She is convinced the brain is one big math problem; that if we can monitor the communication within the neural network, we could potentially calculate the pattern for any brain operation.
These fascinating developments generate ethical questions for the future. If we can input information into the brain, what would stop that input from being hacked or manipulated by an outside source? If neural enhancement implants become available should they be accessible to everyone? If we can calculate the output for human movement and the input for human sight, in the future could we copy an entire human neural network to a computer? Panelists like Marcus and Maharbiz say yes, that could be possible in the future. If that is the case, can we calculate and reconstruct human emotion and creativity? What defines a human brain or a human being for that matter? Can “you” continue to exist through a computer even after your biological body and brain are gone? These kinds of questions, about what makes us who we are, come up often in neuroscience. (Additional reading: “The New Science of the Brain,” from National Geographic.)
The World Science Festival is a collection of lectures, exhibits, performances and street fairs taking place from May 28 to June 1. Brain enthusiasts will enjoy these upcoming events:
Saturday: “Better, Stronger, Faster: The Future of the Bionic Body,” “The Bionic Body: Going Wireless,” “The Craving Brain: The Neuroscience of Uncontrollable Urges”
Sunday: “The Deceptive Watchman: Mind, Brain and Time,” “The Myth of Willpower,” “What is Color,” “Neuroscientist’s Apprentice: Dissecting Sheep Brains,” “Neuroscientist’s Apprentice: Art Meets the Brain”
Also be sure to stop by Washington Square Park on Sunday for the Ultimate Science Street Fair. Check out their program schedule for a complete list of the events taking place in New York City this weekend.