Recommendations concerning Cyborg Technology

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The Danish Council of Ethics' recommendations on cyborg technology ..... part of the philosophical battle concerning the relationship between body and soul.

Article Excerpt

Cyborg technology - the extension of human biology A new area of technology is under development. The technologies in this area have all been made possible by the fact that we can connect the bioelectrical signals of the brain and central nervous system directly to computers and robot parts that are either outside the body or implanted into the body. The common denominator for what we call cyber-technology is therefore the ability to convert the brain's signals into digital signals and vice versa. The partial translatability between signals from the brain and computer signals opens the way to a large number of uses. Perhaps it is only our imaginations that set limits for how much we can expand the abilities of body and intellect and how many new characteristics we will be able to equip people with.

Current research deals to a very high degree with developing so-called neuromotor prostheses - i.e. prostheses for disabled people that can be moved purely through the power of thought and which - in the longer term - their recipients will be able to "feel" through. But there is also ongoing research directed towards other types of uses. For example, the American military has a whole research programme designed to develop technologies that can expand and strengthen human sensory apparatus and, in some ways, human intellect too.

The idea of neuromotor prostheses is primarily aimed at reinstating lost functions with replacements that differ as little as possible from the real thing - the lost arm, lost vision etc. In this context, prostheses can also be virtual or digital. It is obviously an extremely advanced feat of engineering to make an artificial hand with the movement and sensors required to create something approaching the capacity for movement and feeling of a normal functioning biological hand. But, as mentioned above, prostheses can be virtual: When one has succeeded in decoding the brain's movement signals, then these signals can be directly connected to external electronic equipment such as computers, mobile telephones, television sets etc. And when technology becomes wireless, it may be possible to control electronic apparatus with the power of thought alone and hence without the use of either articulated language or an external motor entity.

In 2004, a research group in California succeeded in getting a monkey to control a simple computer game with the power of thought alone. The monkey first practised playing the game with a joystick whilst the researchers used implanted electrodes to carry out measurements in those areas of the brain from which "commands" relating to hand movements were transmitted. When the researchers had decoded the brain's signals and "translated" them into digital computer language, they could completely remove the joystick and the monkey understood within a few minutes that it simply had to "think" about moving its hand when it wanted to operate the simple computer game - and it worked.

Similar experiments had been successfully carried out previously. It has long been known that the brain's signals can be translated into computer language and used as control mechanisms for external machines. But the experiment with the monkey in 2004 was very graphic, because the monkey could immediately control the game with the power of thought without any special learning process. Like Dolly the sheep, who made the term ‘cloning' into public property, it is experiments like the one described that give a very clear picture of the cyborg-technological research that maps and decodes the brain's signals for the purpose of improving or expanding human senses, intellect and motor abilities.

Technologies for connecting the brain's signals to computers are called BCI's - Brain Computer Interfaces. The experiment with the money applied an invasive form of technology - namely electrodes operated into the brain. With people, up until a few years ago, only experiments with non-invasive BCI's have been carried out - for example with the help of a "helmet" with electrodes that can detect the brain's signals on the surface of the cranium. Disabled people and paraplegics can use non-invasive technologies to achieve a certain mobility for example using technologies that follow the movements of the eye on a screen. But invasive technology in which electrodes are implanted in special areas of the brain, are superior in two ways: Firstly it is possible to achieve a greater degree of detail when translating specific signals from brain cells into corresponding motor activity. This means - secondly - that the user can achieve a more intuitive control without first having to learn to direct his or her thoughts in certain (non-intuitive) directions in order to move a connected cursor or piece of equipment.

Only one year after the experiment with the monkey, the first clinical experiments were begun using corresponding technology on people who were seriously disabled and wheelchair-bound (spinal trauma etc.). As in the monkey experiment, electrode sensors were used that are patented under the name "Braingate" i.e. an entrance to the brain. Braingate is a small rectangular plate with 100 minuscule "Points". The points are electrodes that each measure a relatively limited number of brain cells in a given area of the brain.

The clinical experiment in 2005 involved a man who was paralysed as a result of a traumatic spinal injury. Braingate - the electrode was placed on the surface of his brain and could detect signals from the place in the brain from which commands for hand movements are transmitted (same area as in the experiment with the monkey). The electrode had to first "take root" in the brain, after which a number of experiments were carried out. The man's accident had taken place two years previously and the first result of the clinical experiment was to establish that the movement centre's "commands" were still functioning two years after the accident, even though the man had been incapable of moving his hands and thereby ‘exercise' the brain with feedback. Nonetheless, the command signals were still intact and could therefore be used to control external apparatus via electrodes and decoding software.

The above clinical experiment is one among several other experiments that have shown that it is possible to control a computer and external apparatus via the power of thought - with relatively high precision and without much practice. In this experiment, the man was able to move a cursor around in a number of fields on a screen almost as easily as if this had been done with a mouse. Tests were also carried out that showed that the neuromotor prosthesis could be used to control an artificial hand in using a television set and several other objects.

It is remarkable that relatively accurate control can be achieved via the "power of thought", even though only the brain cell signals in a small, limited area of the brain's movement centre were measured. According to researchers, this can be done because the "signal profile" changes significantly enough in the selected group of brain cells. That is, even small command changes (e.g. "press index finger down") results in sufficiently unique and detailed signals in the group of cells in which measurements are carried out, that they can be decoded into a relatively precise command and translated into the relevant external movement (cursor on screen, button on television set etc.).

The description of these few results in research into interfaces between the brain and computer are enough to glimpse the perspectives presented by this area of research. Because it's clear that if one can restore lost motor-sensory functions with the help of such interfaces, one can also strengthen human senses or even the human intellect over and above what we consider to be normal. As well as this, it might even be possible to equip the human being with completely new senses (e.g. infra-red vision) or completely new forms of communication (e.g. the "transmission" of thoughts). The development of neuromotor prostheses could perhaps lead to the development of extra strength or a ‘third' arm. The development of artificial sight - which is well under way - could perhaps lead to the development of strengthened vision or completely new ways of seeing.

The same applies in the opposite direction - that is via input from external systems directly to the brain. Today we have already come part of the way by inducing "artificial" feelings to the brain from a hand prosthesis, just as we have taken several more steps towards realising artificial sight. Is it possible that this is the start of a development through which we could eventually impart very large quantities of information and knowledge to the brain electronically?

One of the obvious questions in this context is, how exact and natural the translation between brain and computer language can be - that is, to what degree can we decode and translate the brain's signals or impart information to the brain? It's one thing to decode the signal patterns that result in specific movements, but something entirely different to decode and recreate representations of what we call inner states - i.e. thoughts, memory pictures, dreams or sensory impressions.

But even in this area - at least seen through a layman's eyes - research has achieved surprising results. For example, Japanese researchers announced in December 2008 in the neuroscientific journal Neuron that they had succeeded with the help of advanced brain scans and a computer in reproducing an experimental subject's sensory impressions without having prior knowledge of what the person was looking at. With the help of measurements, the computer reproduces a pixellated image of the word ‘NEURON' in the graphic variation that the person was actually looking at.

According to the researchers behind this experiment, their medium term vision is of the kind that we would otherwise expect from science fiction - namely that they want to be able to represent what a person is dreaming about, for example. And even though it is technically easier to read information from the brain than to impart it to the brain (the above experiment was carried out with non-invasive brain scans) the translatability shows that in principle it is possible to go the other way - i.e. to import information, pictures, impressions directly to the brain outside the normal human channels (language, the senses and the body).

According to an internationally recognised researcher in this area, José Carmena, the possible areas of use for BCI's (Brain Computer Interfaces) are literally "endless", as he says in an interview with the Danish Council of Ethics on The usefulness of the research will depend very much on how precisely the signals to and from the brain can be controlled. Will it end with the clumsy movements of a prosthesis and individual sensory impressions through the same prosthesis? Or will this develop into wordless communication - i.e. thought-reading - super-powers and the importation of large quantities of information or intelligence capacity to the brain, which one would otherwise have to train up or study in order to achieve? The ethical questions arising from this perspective of possibilities are many. In the centre of the ethical debate is the question of whether it is a good thing to improve and expand human abilities (senses, powers, intelligence, emotional register etc.) in a radical way with the help of interfaces between biology and apparatus in the form of computer and robot technology.

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