The first talk in this morning's opening Plenary Session was "Electronic and Ionic Devices: Semiconductor Chips with Brain Tissue." Yes, you read that correctly: brain tissue. For half an hour, Peter Fromherz of Munich's Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry held a tough crowd's close attention as he described his work on silicon-to-neuron interfaces.Pity... sorry. I guess there's more of the Mad Scientist in me than I thought... Moving right along.
The brain is an interconnected morass of neurons. Any comprehensive electronic interface with it would need not only to have physical contact with, as Fromherz said, "hundreds of thousands or millions of contact sites." But those sites would have to be stable both in placement and biochemical interaction. You don't want them firing up the wrong neurons, poking them destructively, or chemically interacting with them in nasty ways, do you?
Fromherz cited three main directions for hybrid-neuroelectronics research: neurosensorics, neuroprosthetics, and neurocomputing. The first investigates devices that could study the brain, the second focuses on creating devices that could replace or supplement organic functions such as sight and hearing, and the third explores using brain tissue to inform computing design and function.
As you might imagine, that third area - neurocomputing - is the furthest away, seeing as how tissue/chip interface development is still in its infancy. You can forget about organic computers floating in Mason jars for the time being.
Importantly, Fromherz's chip/cell communication could be conducted with no corrosive nor electrochemical damage to either the chip or the cell. However, that slug-neuron success was the only giant step in the development of a chip/cell interface for 17 years. It was only earlier this year that the team managed to pull off essentially the same feat with much smaller and far more delicate mammalian neurons, in this case taken and cultured from those great sacrificers for humanity: lab rats.That's a Big Deal, more so than would appear at first glance. In fact, it's a huge leap in the technology, and gets us 90-something percent of the way to being able to interface human minds directly with digital devices.
But just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean we should do it.
Back in 1991, the idea of electronics being able to cause brain-cell activity was unsettling to some observers. Fromherz, in fact, read to the assemble engineers a worried comment from one observer from that time: Now that "a functioning neuro-net can be physically attached to a silicon chip," the observer said, we should explore the "philosophical and spiritual consequences." Fromherz brushed aside such concerns, and the audience chuckled in agreement.And so they should be! Now I'm very firmly on the side of developing such technology as fast as possible. The great good that could come from it, that would come from it, outweighs any risks. But those risks are real, and not confined to some metaphysical issue of Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Neurosensorics, if they go wrong, could be terribly destructive. They could also be used, or misused, to make "aversion therapy" particularly effective. To remove paedophillic sadism... or to induce it. As the brain is somewhat plastic, it's likely that neuroprosthetics that go beyond replacing limbs, or working around broken spinal chords, but help Alzheimers and Parkinsons patients, could actually "change their minds" in ways unknowable. The risks are real, and just because they are outweighed doesn't mean they should be ignored. Experimentation must be carefully monitored - though not shackled - by ethics committees. Hopefully not including those whose religious beliefs cause them to condemn Science as inherently evil. That's a risk too, and from past history, a greater one.
Don't be surprised, though, that when this type of brain/electronic interface becomes more controllable, interconnectable, and manageable - and it most surely will - such concerns will be debated.
But there are great benefits to be obtained from chip/cell interactions as well. At tomorrow's IEDM, for example, two papers will be presented that will detail recent neuroprosthetic research.It was in January, 2007 that I predicted Cyborgs within a Decade. Looks like we're on track.
The first, "Systems Design of a High-Resolution Retinal Prosthesis" by J. Weitland and his crew from the University of Southern California, will explain how they have managed to fit 1000 light-sensing electrodes to be installed in a tiny in-eye device, coupled with an advanced image-processing technology, and powered remotely. Their goal: greatly improved artificial sight for the vision-impaired.
The second, "Microelectronics Meets the Brain: Towards Implantable Neural Communications Interfaces" by Y.-K. Song and his cohorts at Brown University, will discuss "thought-to-action telemetry." At the core of their work is an active sensor that's surgically implantable with one element below the skull and that interfaces with the brain, and another above the skull but below the skin that's able to communicate with telemetric devices. The entire system, according to the paper's authors, will be safe and highly reliable.
Hmmmm.... I might just write about this in my column, The Next Big Thing at TechLifePost.