An article in the U.K. Daily Mail describes a brain implant that appears to give paralysis victims the ability to speak. Instead of using the body’s normal neural speech pathway—from the brain to the lungs, vocal chords, tongue, and mouth—the brain implant developed by a team at Boston University enables patients, through training and practice, to actuate and control an electronic speech synthesizer.
Is this a mind reading machine? The current brain implant doesn’t vocalize random thoughts. The article provides few details, but I suspect that the patient must do much more than just think of the words. We are still a long way from a mind reading machine.
But this research suggests some interesting and even troubling possibilities.
No doubt this is just the beginning of an effort that will ultimately give many paralysis victims the ability to speak. Consider the parallel with John Gibbon’s invention of the heart-lung bypass machine. Gibbon started by developing a heart-lung bypass machine that worked with cats; he chose cats because their blood oxygenation requirements are relatively modest. Then he moved up to dogs. After nearly 20 years of research, Gibbon built a machine capable of bypassing the heart and lungs of a human long enough for surgeons to operate on the heart.
As brain-computer interface (BCI) chips evolve, they will not only enable paralysis victims to speak through synthesizers, they will permit them to move robotic limbs. It stands to reason that as BCI chips evolve even further it will become possible to translate verbal thoughts into spoken thoughts. Let’s hope that this technology is never used for sinister purposes such as mind control.
There is another possibility that many will find troubling. If you think today's young people spend too much time online, consider this. What if some individuals choose to get brain implants so they can connect to cyberspace directly? Imagine being able to surf the Web in your mind. Or Web sites that let you choose tonight’s dream.