Sci-Fi To Reality: Brain-Computer Interfaces In Medicine And Beyond – Analysis


By Aryan Kaushal

Science fiction often envisions futuristic technology to have mechanisms that enhance or restrict cognitive abilities. This rapidly advancing field of technology is called brain-computer interface (BCI) systems. BCIs use brain activity and brain signals, analysing and translating them into commands to allow users to control external devices. Though this technology has been used in various applications since the late 1800s, its most widely known application, the neural chip, emerged after about two centuries of progress. In a neuro-electrophysiological recording procedure, neural chips are inserted in or near the brain to track brain activity.

While universities and research institutions actively pursue research in this field, Elon Musk’s Neuralink has emerged as the leading mainstream commercial entity in the neural chip industry. Founded in 2016, Neuralink aims to provide those with quadriplegia, a symptom of paralysis, the ability to control mobile phones and computers with their thoughts.

Experimentation and implantation risks

The current BCI market clearly differentiates between BCIs designed for medical purposes and those focused on non-medical, commercial applications. In either case, invasive BCIs for medical use, such as neural chips, carry substantial risks.

Neuralink’s extensive research and experimentation to reach the stage of human implantation readiness included its tests on animals like pigs and monkeys. However, in February 2022, an animal-rights group accused Neuralink and the University of California, Davis, of violating the United States (US) Animal Welfare Act. In December 2022, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiated a federal investigation into Neuralink for potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Data revealed that Neuralink’s research and experimentation had killed 1,500 animals since 2018. Reportsattribute the high animal death rate to Elon Musk’s push to expedite experiments for US Food and Drug Association (FDA) approval.

Animal deaths during clinical trials do not reflect the violations of regulations such as the US Animal Welfare Act, and Neuralink has addressed the organisation’s commitment to animal welfare and ethical testing. Furthermore, in May 2023, the FDA approved Neuralink’s proposal to begin trials to implant brain chips into humans. The company’s compliance with USDA and FDA requirements indicates that they have met the necessary standards. However, the significance of Neuralink’s research underscores the need for its diligent supervision and stringent regulations to minimise animal suffering and fatalities during research trials.

Considering that Elon Musk aimed to begin human trials in 2021, it is apparent that the organisation will begin human clinical studies quickly. Other neurotech companies such as Blackrock Neurotech and Synchron also undertake human trials for their BCIs. Prioritising appropriate practices and ensuring maximum patient safety becomes paramount as the growth of this industry is set to accelerate with more players coming in. Despite extensive research conducted by companies like Neuralink to ensure safety, the chip’s contact with the brain can potentially damage brain tissue, leading to infections, paralysis or even death. Organisations must comply with the guidance provided by the FDA, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the World Health Organization (WHO), to manage and implant BCIs for medical use.

Considering that neural chips can provide those with disabilities the capacity to control devices required for communication today, supporting such projects and developments has merit. Furthermore, the opportunity to communicate with the world through brain implants ensures a better quality of life for suffering individuals and their acquaintances.

The future of medicine

The expanding scope of neural chips in medicine underscores the significance of legislating and regulating brain implant technology. Neuralink’s vision of restoring capabilities such as vision, motor function, and speech, which can redefine our perception of the world, emphasises the need for comprehensive oversight. Supporting this vision necessitates significant investments and rigorous investigations to ensure safe experimentation and trials. It is crucial to address both Neuralink’s commercial goals and the broader aim of transforming human interaction with the world.

The potential benefits of restoring human capabilities through technologies like Neuralink are evident, particularly in providing access to electronic devices for individuals with paralysis. However, as technologies that restore such facilities develop, BCIs that enhance human capabilities and cognition will also emerge. For example, the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA)’s BRAIN initiative aims to improve soldiers’ cognitive capacities.

BCIs also have non-medical applications in the consumer market that involve neuromarketing, a process to monitor brain activity to gauge consumer reactions to advertisements, preferences, motivations and entertainment. Institutions and organisations can also use brain signal data by tracking employee or student wellbeingto accommodate ideal conditions to support productivity or learning.

Therefore, besides the medical risks, such technology would provide enhanced human capabilities to only those who can afford its high costs, leading to social inequalities and significant ethical, legal, and social implications.

Potential hurdles and limitations

Brain chips enable companies like Neuralink with unrestricted access to brain activity data. As technology improves, such data can be used for neuromarketing that capitalises on data from users’ thoughts, increasing concerns of comprising user privacy and agency. This calls for policies that ensure the safety and security of human rights and individual autonomy or the freedom of people to make decisions. Specifically, policies should address ‘neuro-rights,’ such as the rights to personal identity, free will, and mental privacy.

Furthermore, the vulnerability of the implantations is also of foremost significance, as any technological malfunction could have severe impacts on the user’s mental and physical well-being. Access to human thought and cognition opens the door to numerous risks that revolve around human identity and privacy, requiring full-proof user privacy safeguards through integrated policymaking to ensure the explicit provision of user permissions and transparency. Making user consent essential and maintaining transparency regarding what data companies track and use is vital.

Additionally, frameworks ensuring intensive pre-market product safety testing and post-market usage surveillance are vital. Governments must track how private organisations use brain signal data to ensure that it aligns with national and global consumer privacy and data-collection legislation, such as the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Governments must also support organisations such as the Morningside Group, working to secure neuro-rights. Countries like Chile and Spain have already established neuro-rights in law making and policymaking, and other countries must follow suit.

Prompt legislation-backed policies are vital to limit the risks and vulnerabilities of BCIs while they are still at an early stage of development. Governments should take a position on BCIs for medical and public use and establish appropriate limits or support for research organisations like Neuralink, Synchron, and Blackrock Neurotech.

While integrating brain chips with medicine to restore basic capabilities for those in need holds promise within a specific context. Still, the broader implications of merging technology with life are divisive. Establishing policies that navigate this development is crucial, as it can lead to the utopian harmonisation of humanity and technology or present challenges in the fundamental human cognitive processes.

About the author: Aryan Kaushal is an intern at the Observer Research Foundation

Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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