Our Brains, Spiked With Tiny Electronic Processors


Chips On the Brain
by Jennifer Kahn

Source: San Francisco Gate

September 14, 2000

Our Brains, Our Selves
Despite The Data, We Know Our Potential Is Unlimited

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of monthly columns on humans and technology appearing in SF Gate Technology.

The truth is, we like ourselves.

When a rumor began some years ago suggesting that we use only 10 percent of our brain, we were flattered but not surprised.

Secretly, we had always known that we were special -- in a way that wasn't reflected by the crude sum of our accomplishments.

And if we didn't always act like geniuses -- if we tended to lose our wallets, confuse simple sentences, and watch too much TV -- well, that was OK, because we knew in our hearts that we could be extraordinary, if only our potential were unlocked.

But over the years, fussy debunkers have picked away at the 10 Percent Myth, pointing out a variety of inconsistencies. They've noted, for instance, that the 10 percent statistic appears in no neurology research papers.

That evolutionarily, it's unlikely that an animal would develop an enormous brain and then use a tiny fraction of it. That unused portions of a brain would degenerate, the way muscles atrophy from disuse.

And lastly, crushingly, that newer brain imaging machines reveal us using not 10 percent, not 40 percent, but all of our brain (though not all at one time, except perhaps when we're a having a seizure).

The upshot is that we now risk sinking back into the muck of our ordinariness. Can it be that, when we find ourselves struggling to assemble our new computer, we have truly hit the wall of our mental ability?

Fortunately for our sense of ourselves, a newly optimistic discovery has recently surfaced in the pages of forward-looking books and magazines. What glitters now is human-computer potential: our brains, spiked with tiny electronic processors, can be upgraded.

Indeed, scientists in Southern California have already succeeded in making cultured brain cells grow on coated or charged pieces of silicon -- evidence that all manner of neat stuff -- eidetic memory, brainware TurboTax -- is just around the corner.

To read it feels like destiny. The futurist Raymond Kurzweil has predicted that by 2029, "widely available neural implants...will enhance visual and auditory perception, memory and reasoning...significantly altering the concept of what it is to be human."

We will see in infrared, and hear like dogs. An implanted chip may even act like a clever conversational partner, an improved version of our current tendency to talk to ourselves.

It's a plausible trajectory, at least to those of us who don't bother with the details. If there's one thing the computer revolution has convinced us of, it's the inevitable and rapid march of progress -- a Moore's Law pace that we believe holds true not just for microprocessors but for frumpy old biological operating systems as well.

But biological systems are complicated. Although they work exquisitely well, they're also temperamental, kludgy, and subject to mysterious permutations.

It has taken neurobiologists 20 years to develop what is currently the crowning success in the field: a hearing aid that bypasses an ear's damaged hair cells and transmits sound, converted to electromagnetic pulses, directly into the cochlea.

But like retinal implants -- the so-far-unsuccessful attempts to make the blind see -- cochlear implants are downstream tinkering: They use existing nerve bundles to reach the brain, rather than connecting to the brain directly.

True neuron-silicon interfaces remain rare and, well, crude. So far, a handful of companies have prototyped brain "pacemakers" intended to pre-empt epileptic seizures -- though with uneven success. (An implanted electrode that stops the tremors from Parkinson's works better.)

Likewise, a scientist at Emory University has managed to use brain waves (measured by electrodes taped to the scalp and "focused" by the subject) to direct an arrow around a computer screen.

But brain waves are weak, and the process slow -- it would take hours to type a sentence. While useful to a paralyzed patient, it's still a long way from helping the rest of us square large numbers.

It's also a long way from much more modest goals. Researchers at the University of Washington estimate that it will take them a decade to implant tiny computer chips into the brain of a sea slug, which will then be released to wander the ocean floor under video surveillance.

When the slug moves forward, dozens of intracellular electrodes will record its neural activity. When the slug stops, the electrodes will record that, too.

When enough data have been collected, the scientists will begin reverse-programming: feeding the recorded electrical patterns back into the slug's brain. If all goes well, the slug will go forward. (The military applications are staggering.)

But even robo-slug is, by the scientists' estimate, a decade away from reality, leaving us even less time to get our human brains online on schedule.

Roberta Brinton, a professor of molecular pharmacology at the University of Southern California's Center for Neural Engineering, admits that she doesn't see it happening soon.

"There are all kinds of challenges we have yet to face for implantation," she says carefully. "We need to get the surviving neurons" -- in a stroke patient, for example -- "to choose to interface with a silicon chip -- to actually set up a synapse with the chip -- rather than allowing the brain's compensatory healing processes to take over. That's a big one. Another is making the interface stable, so that walking around or nodding doesn't disrupt the connection."

Dr. Gerald Loeb, director of the Medical Devices Development Lab at USC, adds, "Look: it took us 20 years to get cochlear implants working, and that's a fairly straightforward application. Changing how we learn, remember, process information -- that's so far out it's still science fiction."

Not that the naysaying of actual neurologists matters much, in the end. Our longing to be plucked clean from the realm of the middlingly bright and deposited into the realm of genius is unshakeable, and wishfulness has already proven able to trump mere fact.

And so, while researchers spend nights in the lab fusing rat brain cells onto plastic, we sit home, unable to rouse ourselves to do the shopping, much less to learn French or read Faulkner.

That's OK, however, because in our hearts we know that our potential is infinite -- if only we can figure out how to tap into it.

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