Microsoft plans to develop brain implants to help with neurological disorders and other disabilities. In related news, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) wants to use brain implants to treat mood disorders.
Wouldn’t it be great if you just use a brain implant to fix depression, compulsive disorders, or hyperactivity?
A neural implant could one day improve your eyesight or give you a better memory. In some cases, it could even help improve someone’s hand-eye coordination or fine motor skills.
That’s precisely why both the U.S. government and Microsoft want to develop brain implants. But research around the concept still doesn’t have many legs to stand on.
The U.S. military originally funded researchers to conduct “closed-loop” brain implant tests last year in November. Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella only recently began discussing Microsoft’s research last week.
Both face questions not only of technological feasibility but ethics and morality.
What is the current status of brain implant technology and how can this technology improve or otherwise affect physical and mental factors of the human brain?
How DARPA Wants to Help Military Veterans
Though anyone can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), military veterans deal with a very specific kind of PTSD. As such, DARPA funded research to help create a brain implant designed to help veterans deal with both PTSD and depression.
Two teams took very different approaches to the project.
The team at University of California San Francisco wanted to use algorithms built after taking a “map” of patient moods. The algorithm would provide electrical impulses based on that mood mapping in order to maintain homeostasis.
The other team at the Massachusetts General Hospital plans to work with parts of the brain used in decision-making and emotion triggers. They want to focus on problems endemic in many kinds of mental illnesses such as concentration issues.
Both of these implants feature a “closed-loop” feedback in that they do not require external forces to operate. Once the user’s brain is mapped or the researchers know what triggers to watch for, the implants could operate independently (theoretically).
The researchers believe that closed-loop stimulation has more long-term promise.
But, this still gives researchers insight into a person’s emotions in real-time. If these implants can start to manipulate a person’s emotions over time, that person may change – for better or worse.
The ethics of this kind of closed-loop stimulation brain implant technology remain murky.
Microsoft CEO Talks big on Implants for Disabilities
Satya Nadella spoke at length of Microsoft’s research into brain implant technology. In fact, the company previously looked into getting a patent on a system that turned thoughts into action based simply on brain input.
Nadella’s son has cerebral palsy and blindness, so the project is obviously important to him.
Microsoft’s free app Seeing AI narrates the world around a person, describing objects, text, and people. You can discern colors, friends, brightness levels of the environment, and more. It is, naturally, designed for the low vision community.
The tech mogul also helped develop Project Emma, a wearable device to reduce tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease.
These solutions feature the trait of being non-invasive while a brain implant is the opposite.
However, Nadella expressed excitement at researching human-machine interfaces in an CNBC article. He believes it is the next step in bridging the Ableism gap with technology.
Elon Musk also has a hand in the brain-AI interface pot with his company Neuralink.
A Genetic Connection and, Perhaps, a Clue to Solutions
But just as new research into schizophrenia showed a potential solution in identifying the problem, understanding the genetic and biological reasons for mood disorders could lead to better technology in treating them.
We also still don’t know enough about various neurological disorders to make a blanket panacea brain implant.
Though Microsoft wants to help all patients, those with genetic neurological disorders such as Huntington’s disease may be some of the first candidates or candidates most likely to show positive responses to the brain implants.
DARPA’s implants specifically target mental illness with their first goal demographic being veterans and soldiers with PTSD and depression. While these mental illnesses can be acquired, genetic factors also play a role in their manifestation.
Fusing targeted, tailored implants with genetic knowledge will improve results.
Now if we could only figure out why the brain implant designed to treat obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) also helped ameliorate Diabetes, as well.
Fears of Many Black Mirror Episode Outcomes
With all of the positive changes brain implants can bring, they also portend some chilling possibilities. Many a Black Mirror episode explores some of these possibilities.
Perhaps one of the most applicable cases takes place in the episode “Arkangel”.
In it, a mother wants to ensure the safety of her daughter, so she opts for the latest in technology. The brain implant “Arkangel” allows her to see through her daughter’s eyes. It could also pixelate any images the mother deemed dangerous or inappropriate.
The episode explores how this affects their relationship, but you can already see how having control over what someone sees via a brain implant is highly exploitable.
If a hacker could get into someone’s implant, the effects could be disastrous.
A person with a neurological disorder could lose control of their own body. Someone with an implant for a mood disorder could be overcome with electrical impulses.
Thankfully, we are not yet at the point that we need to answer these questions of risk that Arkangel raises.
However, researchers will have to answer these questions of biohacking as both the U.S. government and Microsoft continue R&D to help both abled and disabled people with brain implants.