This is how we will become bionic super humans

Tech companies want to fix spinal cord injuries and make enhanced super humans that communicate through telepathy, or so Prof. Wouter Serdijn heard at a meeting this spring in Washington. There are some snags though.

Many companies are venturing in the field of electronic brain enhancement. (Image: Theater de Veste)
Many companies are venturing in the field of electronic brain enhancement. (Image: Theater de Veste)

It was not at a gathering of science fiction fans but at a serious meeting of the Semiconductor Research Council that bioelectronics expert Prof. Wouter Serdijn (EEMCS faculty) first heard of the plans of the chip manufacturer, ARM.

ARM is working on a chip that should enable people with paralysis to again feel what their hands, feet or legs are touching.

Last week, ARM officially announced that it is going to develop a 'brain-implantable' system-on-a-chip for bi-directional brain-computer interfaces for this purpose.

Musk wants to upload and download thoughts

The company is not the only one venturing in the field of electronic brain enhancement. Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Bryan Johnson, wants to build hardware and software 'neural tools'. And bi-directional brain-computer interfaces are also on the cards for Elon Musk and his company Neuralink.

Musk wants to upload and download thoughts, communicate through telepathy and extend brain capacity with external memory disks.

Serdijn likes to ponder on the way technology can change our minds and bodies. Just two months ago he gave a lecture at Theater de Veste on bionic humans, and last year he delivered one for the Universiteit van Nederland.

Are these techno-utopian dreams?

So what does he think, are these just techno-utopian dreams, or could some of the ideas be viable?

"ARM's plans are not that far-fetched. It is not a solution for neuro-degenerative diseases, but it could work for many spinal cord injuries."

The brain-implantable system-on-a-chip will take the neural signals that represent the person with paralysis' desired movements from the brain and direct them to a stimulator implanted in the spinal cord itself.

"Basically, the company wants to create a bridge between the spinal cord and the brain", explains Serdijn. "This cannot be done without developing extremely energy efficient chips, and as it happens, that is what ARM specialises in."

Brain-computer interfaces connect the brain to a computer system

Serdijn himself is also an expert on energy efficient brain implantable chips. The devices he develops are used for electrostimulation. Brain diseases such as Parkinson's and tinnitus can be treated by applying small electrical currents to the brain.

The Delft researcher, in collaboration with neuroscientist and surgeon Dirk De Ridder of the University of Otago in New Zealand, has had quite some success in this field. Both he and De Ridder know a fair deal about brain-computer interfaces.

Brain-computer interfaces usually connect the brain to a computer system. They have been used for many years, mostly to help paralysed people move prostheses with their thoughts.

A headset with electrodes – a kind of shower cap – registers the brain activity produced while the person is thinking of a movement. It then sends the information to the prostheses which is subsequently activated.

'We will play the piano with our thoughts'

Brain-computer interfaces will drastically change our lives, according to both researchers. "At this point in time these devices are massive and impractical," says Serdijn. "But one day they will be tiny. I would not be surprised if, one day, we will all be wearing chips in our heads that we can use as a thought controlled remote control. Maybe we will be able to play the piano with our thoughts."

De Ridder believes that we will be using brain-computer interfaces for simpler tasks, such as opening doors and making coffee.

Why not send complete thoughts to and from the brain?

Of course, what Elon Musk is after, is much more spectacular than that. He wants to develop digitally enhanced super humans with bi-directional brain-computer interfaces.

The idea behind bi-directional brain-computer interfaces is that if one can send information from the brain to a computer, one can also do it the other way around.

And why just stick to simple orders such as lift or turn right or left as is currently done with mind-driven prostheses? Why not send complete thoughts to and from the brain?

From the cacophony of electric pulses arising from the brain, Musk wants to distill what we think. He wants to read our thoughts, literally, and send them to someone else's brain. A chip in the receiver's brain deciphers the electric code. In brief, telepathic communication.

'The electrodes can only influence hundreds of neurons at the same time'

"I'm not sure this can work," says Serdijn. "The network of electrodes that interact with the neurons is not fine-grained enough. The electrodes cannot pick up distinct pulses from single neurons."

"The problem also exists in the opposite direction. The electrodes cannot influence single neurons but only hundreds at the same time. I don't think these issues can easily be solved."

'It is impossible to decipher the codes'

De Ridder sees some other practical issues. "Thoughts are defined by an intricate play of a myriad of pulses. Even if you can register all the individual pulses, you would still need to decipher the code. I think that is an insurmountable problem. A combination of pulses can mean many different things."

And what about Musk's plan to pimp the brain with extra memory capacity?

"The brain is like a huge library," says De Ridder. "Memories are stored everywhere. So to what part of the brain would you connect an external memory disk?"