The Current

Brain implants could let us see another person's 'deepest secrets' — but should we?

A milestone study out of Stanford University that allowed a paralyzed patient to type using only his brain illustrates that it’s possible to essentially “read another person’s mind,” says a systems design engineering professor at the University of Waterloo.

The technology could help paralzyed people communicate, or more, but experts warn of ethical dilemmas

A study out of Stanford University, in California, used a brain-computer interface to help a paralyzed individual text using only the power of their mind. Canadian experts say the technology could do a lot of good, but warn we should also be cautious of the ethical implications. (Shutterstock / Olga Strelnikova)

A milestone study out of Stanford University that allowed a paralyzed patient to type using only his brain illustrates that it's possible to essentially "read another person's mind," according to a systems design engineering professor at the University of Waterloo.

"People that [are] highly paralyzed, that cannot use other means to communicate with the external world, will … tremendously benefit from this type of technology," said Ning Jiang, director of the Waterloo Engineering Bionics Lab.

"If we put no limit on how this technology can be used, we may see something like Avatar in 50, 60 years, [where] you can use your brain to fully control another being, either artificial or life."

The findings come after a Stanford neurosurgery professor in 2017 implanted two tiny microchips in the brain of a man who was paralyzed from the neck down due to a spinal cord injury, USA Today reported. The implants were able to detect electrical signals in the man's brain, which an artificial intelligence algorithm translated into text.

In a study, a group of researchers from the California university asked the man to imagine he was using his paralyzed hand to write words on paper. The letters he imagined then appeared on a screen, thanks to the technology called a brain-computer interface, or BCI. 

The group's findings were published last month in the journal Nature.

The Current requested interviews with some of the researchers involved in the Stanford study, but did not receive a response by publication time.

Implant experiments in animals

The scientific breakthrough offers huge potential, Jiang told The Current's Matt Galloway. BCIs could be used for communication purposes such as writing or texting, or to control an external device such as a wheelchair, he explained.

Business mogul Elon Musk's neurotechnology company, Neuralink, has already tested out the concept on a macaque monkey named Pager. In the spring, Neuralink released a video claiming to show the monkey playing Pong with its mind, thanks to a device implanted in the animal, the BBC reported.

WATCH | Neuralink says its implant allowed this monkey to play pong with its mind

Neuralink also implanted a chip in a pig's brain last year, a move the company said was part of its work to help cure neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia and spinal cord injuries.

Later down the road, BCI technology might even be able to communicate people's emotions, or help a fully paralyzed patient stand up and walk around by using their brain to control an exoskeleton, Jiang suggested.

"There is really no limit," he said. 

Responsible development of technology

However, just because the possibilities are endless, doesn't mean there shouldn't be limitations, as BCIs in principle have the power to unlock our "deepest secrets," Jiang said.

"You [should] have to have a very, very high level of security … to control who can read my mind, and how he can read my mind, when he can read my mind," he said.

Jennifer Boger, director of the Intelligent Technologies for Wellness and Independent Living Lab at the University of Waterloo, agrees.

While BCIs have the potential to do a lot of good, she told Galloway that researchers, governments and society at large need to think carefully about what responsible development of these technologies looks like.

That can be a tricky task given how quickly technology is evolving, and because it can be difficult to predict their future impacts, she added.

Jennifer Boger is director of the Intelligent Technologies for Wellness and Independent Living Lab at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. (Submitted by Jennifer Boger)

"We need to do a lot better on how we create technology … that respects human values, promotes equity for the environment, and so on. But this is not something that researchers alone can do," Boger said.

"We need to have a large discussion and a lot of crossover knowledge from different disciplines, because these are very complex questions."

Boger explained that, in STEM education, training is usually specialized in one area, with little room to focus on things like philosophy or ethics. Meanwhile, people studying social sciences don't typically learn about tech.

"This gives the impression that while these topics are important, it's not one's job to consider the other," she said. 

"We need to un-silo this a bit … so that the people building [technology] can talk to the people who are passionate about the implications of it, and vice versa."

Ideally, Boger added, technology would develop at a slow enough pace that experts can understand its implications, but not so slow that innovation is stifled.

However, she stressed that technology like a BCI, in and of itself, isn't good or bad.

"It's how we use it, how we access it and what we do with it," Boger said.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Lindsay Rempel.

Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now