A Boost In Brainpower But At What Cost?

Neural devices could give us computer-like recall and increased cognitive speed. Rob Franklin, the director of product development at one of the top neural device makers, discusses the scientific—and societal—implications.

Can you briefly describe how neural devices work?

These devices consist of electrodes that penetrate the top layers of the brain and act as an array of tiny microphones to record brain activity.

How are they used today?

The best-known ones link the brain to an artificial limb. We’re also working with research teams to improve cognition and memory. Work published by the University of Pennsylvania showed that correctly timed stimulation could improve memory and learning in patients with electrodes implanted in their brains. I just spoke with a customer who’s planning to use our devices to diagnose schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s based on a fingerprint—or activity pattern—recorded directly from the brain. Neural devices could also enable us to conduct cognitive tasks more rapidly. I think that will have the largest impact. That’s why Elon Musk and his Neuralink company are looking into this area. It’s why Facebook is looking into this area. A lot of that is going to be coming in 20 to 30 years. More immediately, we’re going to see the restoration of brain function. Once that becomes an established market, people will very quickly try to augment and improve the function of the human brain.

How feasible is that?

There are already people using prosthetics who can exceed the performance of a normal human. I listened to a talk by a double-leg amputee who said that his prosthetics enabled him to climb better than he could before he lost his legs. His prosthetic legs aren’t yet neurally controlled, but that’s the next generation. It’s not a big leap to see how a device intended for restoration could be used for augmentation. Take a visual prosthetic, which is essentially a camera linked to electrodes—or tiny needles—implanted in the eye. These are being tested to restore vision in people who are blind because of retinal damage. If you add an infrared camera to that device, you can see in infrared. As our understanding of the brain improves, we will be able to take it even further. 

How do you feel about that?

A lot of the concerns will be around privacy. If you’d asked people 15 years ago if they’d want a major corporation to know all the details of their lives, from who their friends are to what their political views are, the answer would have been, “No way.” But today a huge segment of society freely gives all that data away to social-networking sites. Facebook has the potential to do a lot of good and a lot of harm, like cyber-bullying and misuse of personal data. We’ll have to decide if the benefits outweigh the costs. The early neural implants of the future will be a bit of a novelty, as Facebook was in its infancy. They will have far-reaching benefits that we cannot even imagine now. As the technology matures, we will also expose terrible uses, like torture, mind control and new forms of substance abuse. Ultimately, we will have to decide as a society if this is a technology we can harness and bend to our will in a way that creates more good than evil. If I create an implant that makes it so that you don’t have to record this conversation on your phone, but instead you can click a switch and recall this conversation perfectly, think about how that would make your life easier.

But what happens when companies aren’t in our pockets but our heads?

I think this is just a natural extension of where we’re already heading with our phones. It feels different because nobody is doing it. But technology has a way of changing how we look at the world and how we experience it.

Would you get a brain implant?

I believe we will find a balance, as we have with many technologies in the past, and when the day comes that I’m convinced the benefits outweigh the costs for me, I will happily be the first in line to get my neural implant.

Rob Franklin is the director of product development for Blackrock Microsystems. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Credit: Daniela Hernandez for The Wall Street Journal, 18 April 2018.