The dream of communicating directly with machines through thought now seems within reach of humans, even if putting it into practice remains far from the imagination of science fiction and the promises of telepathy.
At this stage, several laboratories and companies have proven that it is possible to control computer programs by thought, thanks to brain implants. And vice versa: you can stimulate the brain and get a physical response.
Succeed in making paraplegics walk, make the paralyzed talk again
Latest feats to date: in Lausanne, last May, a paraplegic Dutchman managed to walk and control his steps by thought, thanks to electrodes in the brain and spinal cord and artificial intelligence technologies allowing decode movement intentions in real time.
Read the press release: https://t.co/JnAz4qjbDw pic.twitter.com/B2J1QXjVyW
— CHUV / Vaud University Hospital Center (@CHUVLausanne) May 24, 2023
Also in May, American scientists developed a “language decoder”, which translates a person’s thought into writing, after training the brain for long hours in an MRI (resonance imaging magnetic).
For now, brain-machine interface (BCI) research is focused on people with paralysis. And the devices are mostly tested in a medical setting, although some are now being used more frequently. “We use ‘Utah Array’ (implant from the company Blackrock, editor’s note) in the laboratory, they work. I know people who use them to drive their wheelchairs”says Michael Platt, professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.
“We are at a turning point for Brain-Machine Interfaces”
“But the brain doesn’t like things being put in there. So the immune system attacks these devices (…) and over time the quality of the signal decreases and you lose information”he observes.
The closer the ICMs are to the neurons, the more precise and rich the signal. But then they require complicated surgeries, they are expensive, cumbersome, and less likely to last in the long term.
The American start-up Synchron is betting on a stent inserted into the brain via the jugular vein, according to a surgical procedure that has become common for heart operations – no need to open the skull. Once in place, the “stentrode” allows the patient to use messaging or to surf online, without hands or voice, by clicking by thought.
“We are at a turning point for ICM”, says Tom Oxley, co-founder of Synchron. “There have been incredible demonstrations of what is possible and now the goal is to make the process repeatable, simple and accessible to a large number of people.“.
In 2021, Synchron received approval from the US health authorities (FDA) for clinical trials. A dozen patients with Charcot’s disease (progressive muscle paralysis) received a stentrode. “The goal was to verify that we could record brain activity and that there were no adverse effects, even after one year,” explains Dr. David Putrino of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
Mission accomplished, he says. And for patients, even if “typing” a message remains slow and laborious, the renewed autonomy is priceless. Supported in particular by Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Bill Gates, Synchron raised 75 million dollars in February.
The “consensual telepathy” promised by Elon Musk
Better known thanks to Elon Musk, its co-founder, Neuralink wants to make paralyzed patients walk again, restore sight to the blind and even cure psychiatric illnesses such as depression. And also potentially sell his implant to those who simply dream of being cyborgs.
According to the billionaire, increasing his brain in this way will allow humanity not to be overtaken by artificial intelligence, “an existential threat“. He further discussed the possibility of saving his memories online and uploading them to another body or to a robot. The boss of Tesla and X (formerly Twitter) also does not rule out the “consensual telepathy” between humans, to communicate his “true thoughts” in the raw state, without going through words.
In May, the Californian start-up received the green light from the FDA to test its brain implants on humans. And it has just raised $280 million in investments. Its implant, the size of a coin, is placed in the brain by surgery carried out by a robot. In particular, it was tested on monkeys, who learned to play the Pong video game without a joystick or keyboard.
An experience similar to many others, as in 1969, when an American researcher, Eberhard Fetz, taught a monkey to move a needle on a counter by thought, via an ICM.