People talk about brain implants as if they’re an imagined biohorror in the distant future. This is a misconception. Hardwired trodes already exist, they’re more widespread than you think, and they’ll only be more prevalent as time goes on.
Today, it’s an iPhone 14 under the Xmas tree. Come the Singularity, it’ll be an iTrode 666 in your cerebral cortex.
Neuralink is racing to catch up—burning through lab animals like so much kindling—and will likely take the lead once they’re approved for human trials.
Currently, a brain-computer interface (BCI) can provide quadriplegics and locked-in stroke victims a superior hands-free experience. Patients can move cursors onscreen. They can type text with only their thoughts. They can operate robotic arms to move beer bottles to their lips. The late Matthew Nagle, who received the first proper BCI in 2006, was able to play Pong “telepathically.”
Enjoying a decent head start, Blackrock Neurotech is the most prolific brain-jack racket. “36 people around the world have an implanted brain-computer interface,” their website states. “32 of them use Blackrock technology.” (If I had to wager, the former number is likely greater.)
These silicon seeds have been planted in a bed of gray matter, and after recent rounds of generous financing, they’re growing fast.
It’s important to note, though, that current BCIs are used to read the neurons, not write onto them. At least for now. Yes, there are deep brain stimulation implants—wired electrodes that sit under the skull, typically used to control tremors, and more recently, to alter mood. These simple systems, embedded in over 160,000 heads around the world, do provide input signals. But that’s a long way from hearing articulate voices in your head.
However, should the most aggressive developers realize their dreams, readily available BCI systems will read and rewrite our minds like RAM drives. In the near future, we’re told, commercial implants will allow regular humans to commune with artificial intelligence as if we were spirit mediums drawing ghosts out of the aether.
Manufacturers shield themselves from public outcry by promising the lame will walk and the blind will see. That’s already happening, but the openly declared goal is to move from healing to enhancement.
Last week, Synchron had their BCI bankrolled by the palm-scanning home-invader Jeff Bezos and the island-hopping “Vaxx King” Bill Gates, with $75 million in total investment. Currently, the Brooklyn-based company has jammed chips into multiple human brains. Last summer, they received FDA approval to start trials in the US. Like most BCIs, the device functions like a telepathic touchpad in your skull.
Synchron’s main product, the Stentrode, is much less invasive than its competitors. For instance, Blackrock Neurotech uses a micro-electrode array that sits on top of the brain, requiring doctors to cut through bone for installation. Neuralink’s processor is basically a quarter-sized skull plug, with 1,024 hair-thin wires fanning out like jellyfish tentacles into the gray matter below.
The Stentrode is just a wire-mesh stint, like a tiny pair of Chinese finger cuffs. Surgeons insert this stint in the jugular vein and maneuver it up through the brain’s blood vessels to the desired location. Once installed, the Stentrode monitors brain activity for intention. This information is sent down a cable to an antenna device sitting on the chest under the skin. That data is then transmitted to external devices.
Like its competitors, Synchron’s current projects are focused on the motor cortex. In a series of exercises, the user concentrates on a specific intention. The device then reads the corresponding brain activity, and external artificial intelligence systems create a digital mirror, correlating the brain pattern to the intention. All of this happens in microseconds, allowing for real-time monitoring.
After the brain’s partial mirror image is fleshed out, the paralyzed user can do things like move a cursor onscreen to type text. Synchron’s most famous patient, a locked-in ALS victim, made headlines in December of 2021 for sending the first telepathic tweet. Using the Twitter account of CEO Tom Oxley, he typed out:
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