Science has long been able to listen into the signals the brain sends, but is just now learning to turn those signals into meaningful action. The result is restoring movement and speech to the disabled.One such effort is Cyberkinetic's BrainGate Neural Interface System, now undergoing clinical trials. The tiny chip was developed by Brown University's John Donoghue, who serves as Cyberkinetic's Chief Scientific Officer.
"Our research was to investigate the electrical signals in the brain," says Donoghue, "and how they are transformed as these thoughts get changed over into actual control of your arm or your hand.""One of the big breakthroughs in neuroscience is that we can tap into signals [from the brain], and we get many complex electrical impulses from those neurons," says Brown.
Description of Brain Chips
"We can read out those signals, and by some not-to-complex mathematical techniques, we can put them back together in a way that we can interpret what the brain is trying to do.""In this trial," he explains, "we've implanted a tiny chip in the brain and that tiny chip picks up signals about moving the arm." The signal is then converted into simple commands that can be used to control computers, turn lights on and off, control a television set. Or, as Donoghue explains, "control robotic devices like an artificial hand... or a robotic arm."
The famed mathematician Alan Turing predicted in 1950 that computers would match wits with humans by the end of the century. In the following decades, researchers in the new field of artificial intelligence worked hard to fulfill his prophecy, mostly following a top-down strategy: If we can just write enough code, they reasoned, we can simulate all the functions of the brain.
The results have been dismal. Rapid improvements in computer power have yielded nothing resembling a thinking machine that can write music or run a company, much less unlock the secrets of consciousness.
Benefits Of Implantable Chips
The future may well involve the reality of science fiction's cyborg, persons who have developed some intimate and occasionally necessary relationship with a machine. It is likely that implantable computer chips acting as sensors, or actuators, may soon assist not only failing memory, but even bestow fluency in a new language, or enable "recognition" of previously unmet individuals.
The progress already made in therapeutic devices, in prosthetics and in computer science indicates that it may well be feasible to develop direct interfaces between the brain and computers.
Challenges Faced By The Scientists
Linking our bodies to machines isn't new. For example, millions of Americans have pacemakers. Hawking depends on a machine to speak, as he suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease, a degenerative disease of the nervous system. However, chips and biosensors in development are beginning to blur the line between in vitro and in silico.
Implantable living chips may enable the blind to see, cochlear implants can restore hearing to the deaf, and implants might ameliorate the effects of Parkinson's or spinal damage. Thought-operated devices to enable the paralyzed to manipulate computer cursors are being tested.