On an otherwise routine July day, inside a laboratory at Duke University, two rhesus monkeys sat in separate rooms, each watching a computer screen that featured an image of a virtual arm in two-dimensional space. The monkeys’ task was to guide the arm from the center of the screen to a target, and when they did so successfully, the researchers rewarded them with sips of juice.
But there was a twist. The monkeys were not provided with joysticks or any other devices that could manipulate the arm. Rather, they were relying on electrodes implanted in portions of their brains that influence movement. The electrodes were able to capture and transmit neural activity through a wired connection to the computers.
Making things even more interesting, the primates shared control over the digital limb. In one experiment, for example, one monkey could direct only horizontal actions, while the other guided just vertical motions. Yet the monkeys began to learn by association that a particular way of thinking resulted in the movement of the limb. After grasping this pattern of cause and effect, they kept up the behavior–joint thinking, essentially–that led the arm to the target and earned them juice.
Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, who led the research, published earlier this year, has a name for this remarkable collaboration: a “brainet.” Ultimately, Nicolelis hopes that brain-to-brain cooperation could be used to hasten rehabilitation in people who have neurological damage–more precisely, that a healthy person’s brain could work interactively with that of a stroke patient, who would then relearn more quickly how to speak or move a paralyzed body part.
His work is the latest in a long string of recent advances in neurotechnologies: the interfaces applied to neurons, the algorithms used to decode or stimulate those neurons, and brain maps that produce a better overall understanding of the organ’s complex circuits governing cognition, emotion and action. From a medical perspective, a great deal stands to be gained from all this, including more dexterous prosthetic limbs that can convey sensation to their wearers, new insights into diseases like Parkinson’s, and even treatments for depression and a variety of other psychiatric disorders. That’s why, around the world, major research efforts are underway to advance the field.
But there is a potentially dark side to these innovations. Neurotechnologies are “dual-use” tools, which means that in addition to being employed in medical problem-solving, they could also be applied (or misapplied) for military purposes.
The same brain-scanning machines meant to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease or autism could potentially read someone’s private thoughts. Computer systems attached to brain tissue that allow paralyzed patients to control robotic appendages with thought alone could also be used by a state to direct bionic soldiers or pilot aircraft. And devices designed to aid a deteriorating mind could alternatively be used to implant new memories, or to extinguish existing ones, in allies and enemies alike.
Consider Nicolelis’s brainet idea. Taken to its logical extreme, says bioethicist Jonathan Moreno, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, merging brain signals from two or more people could create the ultimate superwarrior. “What if you could get the intellectual expertise of, say, Henry Kissinger, who knows all about the history of diplomacy and politics, and then you get all the knowledge of somebody that knows about military strategy, and then you get all the knowledge of a DARPA engineer, and so on,” he says, referring to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. “You could put them all together.” Such a brainet would create near-military omniscience in high-stakes decisions, with political and human ramifications.
To be clear, such ideas are still firmly in the realm of science fiction. But it’s only a matter of time, some experts say, before they could become realities. Neurotechnologies are swiftly progressing, meaning that eventual breakout capabilities and commercialization are inevitable, and governments are already getting in on the action. DARPA, which executes groundbreaking scientific research and development for the U.S. Defense Department, has invested heavily in brain technologies. In 2014, for example, the agency started developing implants that detect and suppress urges. The stated aim is to treat veterans suffering from conditions such as addiction and depression. It’s conceivable, however, that this kind of technology could also be used as a weapon—or that proliferation could allow it to land in the wrong hands. “It’s not a question of if nonstate actors will use some form of neuroscientific techniques or technologies,” says James Giordano, a neuroethicist at Georgetown University Medical Center, “but when, and which ones they’ll use.”
People have long been fascinated, and terrified, by the idea of mind control. It may be too early to fear the worst—that brains will soon be vulnerable to government hacking, for instance—but the dual-use potential of neurotechnologies looms. Some ethicists worry that, absent a legal framework to govern these tools, advances in the lab could enter the real world dangerously unencumbered.
For better or for worse, Giordano says, “the brain is the next battlespace.”
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