"In some sense science fiction is a bellwether for where people want to go with technology, and this is something that's been written about, dreamed about, for a very long time from the perspective of a consumer market, or just in improving human performance," says James Eles, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is leading research on engineering the biomaterials for neural application and on improving the performance of implantable neural devices.
In simple terms, brain-computer interfaces (BCI) involve extracting information from the brain using computational methods and then applying stimulation back into the brain.
"You could apply the stimulation back either through an electrode that penetrates the skull, that's buried inside the brain, but you can also do it using, for example, transcranial magnetic stimulation or transcranial direct cortical stimulation using electric pulses that pass through the skull," Charles Liu, professor of clinical neurological surgery and director of the USC Neurorestoration Centre explains, in slightly less simple terms.
Liu is working on a number of BCI projects, primarily in restoring leg and arm function to patients suffering disease or injury of the nervous system.
Brain-computer interfaces have already proven effective when it comes to restoring cases of lost movement, and in emerging areas such as the restoration of the visual system.
What neuroscientists are struggling with however, is the mode of interface to employ. Right now invasive devices that can be implanted into the brain and body are at the forefront of this field of research.
However, this method poses complex problems. “How can we change that reaction that the body has to be more bio-compatible? To integrate with the device as opposed to trying to push the device out of the body?” asks Eles.
It’s a problem of scale. “People are finding that if we want to improve that functionality, you need to continue to get smaller, and smaller devices so that you can listen to more and more neurons at the same time to really deliver different visual sensations,” Eles continues.
Auditory prosthetics have been an area of greater success to date, with Eles praising the cochlear implant as a great success story of neural engineering. He explains that this is due to the greater simplicity of auditory signals to visual signals.
In the commercial sphere, however, implanted devices are less palatable to normal consumers. However, the alternatives remain problematic right now.
“To achieve some sort of neural control through non-invasive EEG signals for example, you just don't have the sort of finesse and control with these sorts of devices that you do through implantable devices,” says Eles.
This means that only those in desperate need are likely to be willing to undergo the neurosurgery required for one of these devices to be fitted, meaning that right now, that is where the demand lies.
The mind as a designed space
Right now, the area of BCI research is mostly focused on patient populations, but many scientists in this sphere consider interfaces developed for normal, healthy populations as an inevitability. Liu sees it as a continuation of a process that has already begun.
"We're immersed in this digital soup that is not random," he says, "this is all stuff that is carefully crafted information - you have artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms that are driven by big tech companies for the purpose of advertising and so on, and this information, it's not a direct sort of interface but it's no less an interface right?"
Braden Allenby, author of The Techno-Human Condition and a professor of engineering and ethics at Arizona State University, feels similarly. "One of the most obvious things about the Anthropocene taken as a whole is climate change. But what that's really doing is fixating on a symptom of something that's far far more fundamental and profound, and that is that both the planet and the human have become designed spaces."
Allenby sees this as simply an extension of the outsourcing of brain functions humans have long relied on, beginning with the creation of books. But of course there is the question of whether, even if humans were theoretically capable of computationally processing this information, they would be able to deal with it at a psychological level, while retaining a sufficient sense of self and awareness.
He suggests that to avoid this issue, BCIs wouldn't take the form of the unfiltered internet running through our brains. "I think that the assumption that we tend to make when we posit a scenario like that is that the human brain is going to remain the locus of cognition," he says.
"Let's say, you put a chip in my brain and I can access the internet, which implies that I'm the one that's the primary processor of information, but if we're really building good BCI, then what's going to happen is that we're going to start seeing meta-cognitions evolve in the cloud that are far more effective than any single human being, no matter how much information we try to pump into them."
As Allenby points out, the amount of information at our fingertips has increased exponentially - even to the point of overload - where there has not been a corresponding increase in the rationality of humanity - how else would Donald Trump have made it into the White House?
The changing essence of humanity
Some critics of this attitude might question this effect on the evolution of humanity. But a different take is not that it’s somehow changing the essence of humanity, but whether there is any true essence at all.
“In some sense, it questions what is it about us that gives us consciousness, right?” says Eles. “I mean, if you're able to just stick some electrodes in the brain and evoke feelings, evoke sensations that a lot of people would associate with their consciousness. It sort of, I guess, confronts that idea of do we have free will? Or are we just a bunch of circuits that are firing in response to some sort of stimulation in the environment? In that sense the brain computer interfaces really give some sort of concrete example of the deterministic qualities of brain and mind.”
However, as Eles points out, this is nothing new. We have been investigating the locus of different brain functions and psychological and physiological phenomena for centuries.
Eles sees the current development of neural devices as holding exciting promise for the future of the field. He calls this the ‘second generation of electrodes’ which have the ability to integrate with more neurons and create higher resolution sensations in realms such as vision.
Allenby, meanwhile, believes that integration of humans with mechanical systems could well be at a tipping point. "We've been bouncing along for a long time, you know, we've been playing with how humans can can transfer information and then computational function to machines," he says. "Now we're getting to the point where it's getting serious and we can talk about integrating cognition at different levels, because we'll be able to sort of parse cognition across these techno human networks."