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Tech for Autonomous Systems – Advanced Interaction Capabilities IX

Enhancing memory through a brain implant to stimulate the hippocampus. Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL)


The promise of a full understanding of the brain working made by projects like The Human Brain (EU)  and The Brain Initiative can potentially open the way to an augmentation of the brain processing and storage capabilities through the implant of chips that can improve memory and processing.

In this area there is a fuzzy border between science and science fiction and it will remain so for the next decade.
Nevertheless studies aiming at helping people with memory deficit are ongoing and trials are being made with animals to improve the capability of remembering and of storing experiences. Most focus on electrical or magnetic stimulation, through probes, of the hippocampus, that has been recognised to play a crucial role in memory.

TMS, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, technology has been tested but the stimulation cannot reach the hippocampus and is limited to the external part of the brain (experiments have been taking place on the parietal cortex).

Deep Brain Stimulation –DBS- is being tested as a potential help in Alzheimer but it involves invasive surgery to place electrodes inside the brain.

Other trials are using weak electrical currents that can be focussed on the hippocampus. A new technology using electrical pulses generated by several electrodes placed on the skull and timed in such a way that their propagation creates a strong pulse in a specific area of the brain is being proposed by MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering as a way to create non-invasive hippocampus stimulation and first tests are now being performed on humans.

Evolution in these technologies will be affecting, hopefully, the care of patients with memory disabilities and will also contribute in gathering understanding on how memory works in the human brain potentially opening the way for memory augmentation through neurotechnologies. They may also serve as “memory back up” in case of loss of memory due to trauma.

Although solutions are not in sight, issues related to brain augmentation through neurotechnologies are already being debated. Some, like Elon Musk, are even seeing this augmentation as a way to contrast the take-over by artificial intelligence once it will become “smarter” than humans. Others are seeing this as a profound link between humans and their artefacts with a seamless continuum of natural intelligence and artificial intelligence. According to Bryan Johnson, one of the funder of Kernel: “The relationship between human intelligence and artificial intelligence (HI + AI) will necessarily be one of symbiosis. The challenge and potential of exploring this co-evolutionary future is the biggest story of the next century”.
As Brian says, this will clearly be a situation of strong symbiotic relationship between a person and an artefact, the ambient.

It will also remain to be seen if placing a “chip” inside the brain for its augmentation would make more sense than the alternative establishment of a seamless connection between the brain and the internet where memory and processing can be tapped at will. In a way, it can be more an architectural issue, where to place the functionality. One could imagine an implanted chip that boost one’s memory and one’s capability to speak/understand a foreign language or a seamless connection to the Internet via an implanted chip – DARPA is funding with 65million $ the development of neural implants to create a seamless connection between a brain and a computer-  transferring the voice (or text read) speaking to us, providing back the translation for our brain to process and then providing the translation of what we want to say by directing our speech to speak in the foreign language.

For the time being this latter “implementation” can fall into a foreseeable technology feasibility, the former is still in the boundary of science fiction. Of course variations to this situation can already be feasible with a microphone picking up the voice at the same time of our ears, providing the translation through text (augmented reality) or a earbud and listening to what we say in our language as reply and providing a real time translation. This in a way, is also augmenting our capability, although it is not augmenting our brain directly.

The implantation of a chip in the brain, apart from its feasibility in terms of memory and processing augmentation, is also raising issues on how the brain in the long term will react to this. Under the assumption that it might be feasible, and seamless from the point of view of brain thought processes, how will the brain change/evolve in consequence of this booster? Our brain is continually evolving as result of newly acquired capabilities (learning) and in principle this should also be the case for a seamless chip implant.

The general governing rule for the brain is to move towards low power consumption. As one gets better at basketball, the brain is using less and less processing to successfully throw the ball into the basket. A few neuronal circuits get specialised in assessing distance and location of the basket and in the necessary coordination of movement to score. With a chip taking over it is likely that more and more neurons will rely on the chip saving power but also losing their capability.

Augmentation through technology remains a double edged sword and it will be so for brain augmentation, although it is impossible now to understand fully its implications.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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