Skip 25 minutes in to last night’s Newsnight for a thought provoking report on the implications of cognitive enhancement. The report begins with the words “we all have had to endure dope smokers who think they’re being profound when really they’re just off their heads“. (Yeah, well up yours too Paxman!) So you may find it a challenge to sit through, especially if you keep on top of neuroscience news (no, there’s nothing new in it), but it certainly provokes interesting debate.
For further reading (or if you feel you can’t endure Paxman shallowly grilling a professor for half a minute and expecting to get a result), you can visit my post’s on the topics of Modafinl and Kevin Warwick’s research on robots controlled using live brain tissue. You heard it here first!
Last month we covered Kevin Warwick’s creation of a robot controlled remotely by living rat brain tissue. This month a similar project by a group at MIT has completed almost exactly the same task in reverse. Electrodes implanted in a rat’s brain have been used to remotely control the rat’s movements by delivering impulses of light directly in to the brain tissue. Until now a problem for this method has been the size of the batteries required to power the unit that sits on the rat’s head. This problem has been solved to some extent by using “wireless power”, which consists of placing a small magnetic coil on the head top unit and transmitting electricity via a magnetic field from a nearby magnetic coil.
The remote control addition to this project is the ground breaking element here. It has long been known that electric stimulation of the brain can illicit specific behaviours. More recently the field of optogenetics has emerged becoming Nature’s “method of the year” in 2010. Optogenetics involves the use of a gene for producing light-sensitive protein in algae which is tied to the promoter for another gene which identifies neurons that elicit a given behaviour such as sex, aggression or the flight response. The light sensitive protein itself (such as channelrhodopsin) then activates those neurons electrically when the light is on. The modified gene is then delivered in to the brain by a virus. The neurons that trigger a particular behaviour can then be activated at the flick of a switch just by shining light on the brain using an LED.
Believe it or not, the purpose of this research isn’t a macabre project to develop Frankenstein pets. The emerging fields of optogenetics and remote power transmission combined are likely to result in vast developments in the fields of neural prosthetics. Theoretically there are also endless possibilities for the management of mood disorders. Optogenetics will surely be a field I’ll be keeping my eye on.
Wentz CT, Bernstein JG, Monahan P, Guerra A, Rodriguez A, & Boyden ES (2011). A wirelessly powered and controlled device for optical neural control of freely-behaving animals. Journal of neural engineering, 8 (4) PMID: 21701058
On Friday 20th May Kevin Warwick, the designer of the rat brain robot and the self proclaimed “world’s first cyborg” is visiting town for the Bristol Ideas Festival. “Rewind” I hear you say, “the what controlled robot and the what what?“. Kevin and his team have grown cultured neural networks from brain tissue of dissected embryonic rats. The tissue is dissected before being split up using enzymes and fed on a culture of nutrients, antibiotics and growth hormones, half of which have to be replaced twice weekly. Within just an hour of seeding the cells extend connections with one another and within 24 hours a dense mat of neuronal extensions appears. The team attached a microelectrode array over the surface of the neuronal mat. After a week single action potentials (electrical signals) can be seen and during the second week dense bursts of electrical signals are emitted by the brain. The electrode array, that is placed on the brain is then attached via bluetooth to a robot. The robot scans the environment using a form of sonar and transmits signals to the brain via the electrode array. The brain interprets the signals and responds with signals which are analysed in real time and used to control the movement of the robot. This allows the robot to avoid obstacles without any outside help.
The research paper concludes..
“The existing, successfully tested infrastructure could be easily modified to investigate culture-mediated control of a wide array of alternative robotic devices such as a robot head, an autonomous vehicle, robotic arms, grippers, mobile robot swarms, and multi-legged walkers.“
Perhaps that’s optimistic, but I’d have doubtless said it was optimistic if I’d been told ten years ago that robots would soon be controlled by brains grown in labs. Way back in 2002 Kevin became the world’s “first cyborg” by developing a chip which he himself implanted in his arm which allowed him to remotely control a robot hand by just moving his hand. He received sensory feedback from the robot in the form of electrical signals emitted by the implant in his own hand. Before this point it was generally believed that such an operation would cause sensory damage but no damage occured, the nerve endings actually grew around the electrode array (Warwick et al, 2005). Following this he successfully implanted a similar array in his wife, allowing the couple to be the first humans in history to communicate (all be it only through internal clicks of the hand) through purely electronic means. In the film below Kevin describes his experience “being a cyborg” and debates some of the ethical issues with a somewhat unique candour:
“Seeing how poor humans are at doing things, why not upgrade?.. why can’t I have extra memory?.. why can’t I sense the world in infra red or ultra-sonic?” (all fair questions).. “If we can simply download information in to the brain education will completely change”… At about five and a half minutes in we get really quite off the wall and the narrative starts to get slightly disparate, though I’m pretty sure that’s due to the film editor… “I think in terms of holidays.. do you really need to go to a place if the image of it and the memory of it can be downloaded in to your brain”. Kevin has come under attack from some quarters who are rightly or wrongly but certainly amusingly completely freaking out about the implications of his scientific advances (or perhaps rather, his interpretations of them). Kevin certainly doesn’t give up any ground to the critics… “I would expect critics, because when we look at enhancements it is going to change life completely, humans could become a sub-species.. (cyborgs) will clearly be intellectually superior in many many ways.. just the concept of thinking in five or six or ten dimensions as opposed to humans thinking in three dimensions. You’d have a completely different concept of the world around you, if I was a cyborg and you were a cyborg and we’re communicating by thought and so on and some human comes along making these silly noises that humans make called speech.. (I’m starting to feel sorry for his project student at this point).. well it’s a bit like for two humans to be communicating and a cow comes in going moomoomooo”… “well I don’t mind.. because I don’t want to be a human, I don’t want to be part of a subspecies.. I want to be a cyborg and I know I’m not the only one”.
I have an enormous respect for Kevin, the work he has done has led to phenomenal scientific progress and is nothing short of inspirational. It appears to me that Kevin is a tad misrepresented by the above clip, the excessive video editing seems to obstruct his message somewhat. In another excellent monologue (below) Kevin talks freely and is much better presented. I find particularly interesting how Kevin describes the perceptual incorporation of ultrasonic sensors (Warwick et al, 2005). Using the internal implant in his own arm, feedback from ultrasonic sensors placed on a baseball cap on his head were fully integrated in to his perceptual system allowing him to judge his distance from objects. It seems he genuinely acquired a sixth sense (something that researchers in Brighton have recently demonstrated is now no longer such a unique technological advancement). In the following clip he also tackles the Terminator scenario. I can’t help but think that he is using irony, humour and a pinch of artistic licence to some extent to tackle the issues that he’s concerned about, which in my opinion is the best way to create dialogue in most domains. Either way, the following clip certainly makes me chuckle to myself at points. Mortal humour is the new black, haven’t you heard? Just me? OK then. I’d really like to be able to think that he’s just engaging in some old fashioned idiot-baiting but it certainly appears however that he sincerely believes what he is saying, which makes the whole thing pretty chilling.
“The possibilities are there, the sort of Terminator style machines, they will be the ones in command… There are dangers and threats if you are a human and you want to remain a human, I certainly don’t, I want to become a cyborg on a permanent basis and I can see lots of advantages of doing that.. In the future if you want to be a cyborg and you’re happy upgrading then fine, I think the futures rosy, an in-the-driving-seat type of existence. However if you are a human and you want to stay human then, well, enjoy life while you can, it’s not going to last much longer”. Things get even darker when Kevin moves on to talk about military applications.. “We can see dramatic changes in the military domain, firstly autonomous fighting machines, by the time we get to 2020.. we’re going to have a plethora of them”… and without dropping the deadpan for even a second… “security is going to have to be tighter, you can’t have people hacking in to other people’s brains”.
Could it be that James Cameron might just have hit the nail on the head the first time round? Probably not, but maybe, just maybe, the classic film had the ring of truth. Only the future will tell. Welcome to the brave new world.
Kevnin Warwick is speaking at the Bristol Ardolfini on Friday 20th May (along with a host of other fascinating speakers over the coming fortnight at the Bristol Festival of Ideas)
Warwick, K., Xydas, D., Nasuto, S. J., Becerra, V. M.,, & Hammond, M. W., Downes, J., Marshall, S. and Whalley, B (2010). Controlling a mobile robot with a biological brain. Defence Science, 60 (1), 5-14 (Open Access PDF)
Warwick, K.; Gasson, M.; Hutt, B.; Goodhew, I.; (2005). An attempt to extend human sensory capabilities by means of implant technology Systems, Man and Cybernetics, 2005 IEEE International Conference, 2 (10), 1663-1668 : 10.1109/ICSMC.2005.1571387 (IEEE Subscription needed)
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