Tag Archives: machine/flesh

Digi, Nano, Bio, Neuro – why should we care more about converging technologies?

Personality in focus: the convergence of biology and computer technology could make extremely sensitive data available. (Image: by-​studio / AdobeStock) [downloaded from https://ethz.ch/en/news-and-events/eth-news/news/2024/05/digi-nano-bio-neuro-or-why-we-should-care-more-about-converging-technologies.html]

I gave a guest lecture some years ago where I mentioned that I thought the real issue with big data and AI (artificial intelligence) lay in combining them (or convergence). These days, it seems I was insufficiently imaginative as researchers from ETH Zurich have taken the notion much further.

From a May 7, 2024 ETH Zurich press release (also on EurekAlert), Note: You’ll see in the ‘References’ some extra words, ‘external page’ is self-explanatory but ‘call made’ remains a mystery to me,

In my research, I [Dirk Helbing, Professor of Computational Social Science at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences and associated with the Department of Computer Science at ETH Zurich.] deal with the consequences of digitalisation for people, society and democracy. In this context, it is also important to keep an eye on their convergence in computer and life sciences – i.e. what becomes possible when digital technologies grow increasingly together with biotechnology, neurotechnology and nanotechnology.

Converging technologies are seen as a breeding ground for far-​reaching innovations. However, they are blurring the boundaries between the physical, biological and digital worlds. Conventional regulations are becoming ineffective as a result.

In a joint study I conducted with my co-​author Marcello Ienca, we have recently examined the risks and societal challenges of technological convergence – and concluded that the effects for individuals and society are far-​reaching.

We would like to draw attention to the challenges and risks of converging technologies and explain why we consider it necessary to accompany technological developments internationally with strict regulations.

For several years now, everyone has been able to observe, within the context of digitalisation, the consequences of leaving technological change to market forces alone without effective regulation.

Misinformation and manipulation on the web

The Digital Manifesto was published in 2015 – almost ten years ago.1 Nine European experts, including one from ETH Zurich, issued an urgent warning against scoring, i.e. the evaluation of people, and big nudging,2 a subtle form of digital manipulation. The latter is based on personality profiles created using cookies and other surveillance data. A little later, the Cambridge Analytica scandal alerted the world to how the data analysis company had been using personalised ads (microtargeting) in an attempt to manipulate voting behaviour in democratic elections.

This has brought democracies around the world under considerable pressure. Propaganda, fake news and hate speech are polarising and sowing doubt, while privacy is on the decline. We are in the midst of an international information war for control of our minds, in which advertising companies, tech corporations, secret services and the military are fighting to exert an influence on our mindset and behaviour. The European Union has adopted the AI Act in an attempt to curb these dangers.

However, digital technologies have developed at a breathtaking pace, and new possibilities for manipulation are already emerging. The merging of digital and nanotechnology with modern biotechnology and neurotechnology makes revolutionary applications possible that had been hardly imaginable before.

Microrobots for precision medicine

In personalised medicine, for example, the advancing miniaturisation of electronics is making it increasingly possible to connect living organisms and humans with networked sensors and computing power. The WEF [World Economic Forum] proclaimed the “Internet of Bodies” as early as 2020.3, 4

One example that combines conventional medication with a monitoring function is digital pills. These could control medication and record a patient’s physiological data (see this blog post).

Experts expect sensor technology to reach the nanoscale. Magnetic nanoparticles or nanoelectronic components, i.e. tiny particles invisible to the naked eye with a diameter up to 100 nanometres, would make it possible to transport active substances, interact with cells and record vast amounts of data on bodily functions. If introduced into the body, it is hoped that diseases could be detected at an early stage and treated in a personalised manner. This is often referred to as high-​precision medicine.

Nano-​electrodes record brain function

Miniaturised electrodes that can simultaneously measure and manipulate the activity of thousands of neurons coupled with ever-​improving AI tools for the analysis of brain signals are approaches that are now leading to much-​discussed advances in the brain-​computer interface. Brain activity mapping is also on the agenda. Thanks to nano-​neurotechnology, we could soon envisage smartphones and other AI applications being controlled directly by thoughts.

“Long before precision medicine and neurotechnology work reliably, these technologies will be able to be used against people.” Dirk Helbling

Large-​scale projects to map the human brain are also likely to benefit from this.5 In future, brain activity mapping will not only be able to read our thoughts and feelings but also make them possible of being influenced remotely – the latter would probably be a lot more effective than previous manipulation methods like big nudging.

However, conventional electrodes are not suitable for permanent connection between cells and electronics – this requires durable and biocompatible interfaces. This has given rise to the suggestion of transmitting signals optogenetically, i.e. to control genes in special cells with light pulses.6 This would make the implementation of amazing circuits possible (see this ETH News article [November 11, 2014 press release] “Controlling genes with thoughts” ).

The downside of convergence

Admittedly, the applications mentioned above may sound futuristic, with most of them still visions or in their early stages of development. However, a lot of research is being conducted worldwide and at full speed. The military is also interested in using converging technologies for its own purposes. 7, 8

The downside of convergence is the considerable risks involved, such as state or private players gaining access to highly sensitive data and misusing it to monitor and influence people. The more connected our bodies become, the more vulnerable we will be to cybercrime and hacking. It cannot be ruled out that military applications exist already.5 One thing is clear, however: long before precision medicine and neurotechnology work reliably, these technologies will be able to be used against people.

“We need to regain control of our personal data. To do this, we need genuine informational self-​determination.” Dirk Helbling

The problem is that existing regulations are specific and insufficient to keep technological convergence in check. But how are we to retain control over our lives if it becomes increasingly possible to influence our thoughts, feelings and decisions by digital means?

Converging global regulation is needed

In our recent paper we conclude that any regulation of converging technologies would have to be based on converging international regulations. Accordingly, we outline a new global regulatory framework and propose ten governance principles to close the looming regulatory gap. 9

The framework emphasises the need for safeguards to protect bodily and mental functions from unauthorised interference and to ensure personal integrity and privacy by, for example. establishing neurorights.

To minimise risks and prevent abuse, future regulations should be inclusive, transparent and trustworthy. The principle of participatory governance is key, which would have to involve all the relevant groups and ensure that the concerns of affected minorities are also taken into account in decision-​making processes.

Finally, we need to regain control of our personal data. To accomplish this, we need genuine informational self-​determination. This would also have to apply to the digital twins of our body and personality, because they can be used to hack our health and our way of thinking – for good or for bad.10

With our contribution, we would like to initiate public debate about converging technologies. Despite its major relevance, we believe that too little attention is being paid to this topic. Continuous discourse on benefits, risks and sensible rules can help to steer technological convergence in such a way that it serves people instead of harming them.

Dirk Helbing wrote this article together with external page Marcello Ienca call_made, who previously worked at ETH Zurich and EPFL and is now Assistant Professor of Ethics of AI and Neuroscience at the Technical University of Munich.

References

1 Digital-​Manifest: external page Digitale Demokratie statt Datendiktatur call_made (2015) Spektrum der Wissenschaft

2 external page Sie sind das Ziel! call_made (2024) Schweizer Monat

3 external page The Internet of Bodies Is Here: Tackling new challenges of technology governance call_made (2020) World Economic Forum

4 external page Tracking how our bodies work could change our lives call_made (2020) World Economic Forum

5 external page Nanotools for Neuroscience and Brain Activity Mapping call_made (2013) ACS Nano

6 external page Innovationspotenziale der Mensch-​Maschine-Interaktion call_made (2016) Deutsche Akademie der Technikwissenschaften

7 external page Human Augmentation – The Dawn of a New Paradigm. A strategic implications project call_made (2021) UK Ministry of Defence

8 external page Behavioural change as the core of warfighting call_made (2017) Militaire Spectator

9 Helbing D, Ienca M: external page Why converging technologies need converging international regulation call_made (2024) Ethics and Information Technology

10 external page Who is Messing with Your Digital Twin? Body, Mind, and Soul for Sale? call_made Dirk Helbing TEDx Talk (2023)

Here’s a second link to and citation for the paper,

Why converging technologies need converging international regulation by Dirk Helbing & Marcello Ienca. Ethics and Information Technology Volume 26, article number 15, (2024) DOI: 10.1007/s10676-024-09756-8 Published: 28 February 2024

This paper is open access.

Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report

Launched on Thursday, July 13, 2023 during UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) “Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology,” is a report tying together the usual measures of national scientific supremacy (number of papers published and number of patents filed) with information on corporate investment in the field. Consequently, “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends” by Daniel S. Hain, Roman Jurowetzki, Mariagrazia Squicciarini, and Lihui Xu provides better insight into the international neurotechnology scene than is sometimes found in these kinds of reports. By the way, the report is open access.

Here’s what I mean, from the report‘s short summary,

Since 2013, government investments in this field have exceeded $6 billion. Private investment has also seen significant growth, with annual funding experiencing a 22-fold increase from 2010 to 2020, reaching $7.3 billion and totaling $33.2 billion.

This investment has translated into a 35-fold growth in neuroscience publications between 2000-2021 and 20-fold growth in innovations between 2022-2020, as proxied by patents. However, not all are poised to benefit from such developments, as big divides emerge.

Over 80% of high-impact neuroscience publications are produced by only ten countries, while 70% of countries contributed fewer than 10 such papers over the period considered. Similarly, five countries only hold 87% of IP5 neurotech patents.

This report sheds light on the neurotechnology ecosystem, that is, what is being developed, where and by whom, and informs about how neurotechnology interacts with other technological trajectories, especially Artificial Intelligence [emphasis mine]. [p. 2]

The money aspect is eye-opening even when you already have your suspicions. Also, it’s not entirely unexpected to learn that only ten countries produce over 80% of the high impact neurotech papers and that only five countries hold 87% of the IP5 neurotech patents but it is stunning to see it in context. (If you’re not familiar with the term ‘IP5 patents’, scroll down in this post to the relevant subhead. Hint: It means the patent was filed in one of the top five jurisdictions; I’ll leave you to guess which ones those might be.)

“Since 2013 …” isn’t quite as informative as the authors may have hoped. I wish they had given a time frame for government investments similar to what they did for corporate investments (e.g., 2010 – 2020). Also, is the $6B (likely in USD) government investment cumulative or an estimated annual number? To sum up, I would have appreciated parallel structure and specificity.

Nitpicks aside, there’s some very good material intended for policy makers. On that note, some of the analysis is beyond me. I haven’t used anything even somewhat close to their analytical tools in years and years. This commentaries reflects my interests and a very rapid reading. One last thing, this is being written from a Canadian perspective. With those caveats in mind, here’s some of what I found.

A definition, social issues, country statistics, and more

There’s a definition for neurotechnology and a second mention of artificial intelligence being used in concert with neurotechnology. From the report‘s executive summary,

Neurotechnology consists of devices and procedures used to access, monitor, investigate, assess, manipulate, and/or emulate the structure and function of the neural systems of animals or human beings. It is poised to revolutionize our understanding of the brain and to unlock innovative solutions to treat a wide range of diseases and disorders.

Similarly to Artificial Intelligence (AI), and also due to its convergence with AI, neurotechnology may have profound societal and economic impact, beyond the medical realm. As neurotechnology directly relates to the brain, it triggers ethical considerations about fundamental aspects of human existence, including mental integrity, human dignity, personal identity, freedom of thought, autonomy, and privacy [emphases mine]. Its potential for enhancement purposes and its accessibility further amplifies its prospect social and societal implications.

The recent discussions held at UNESCO’s Executive Board further shows Member States’ desire to address the ethics and governance of neurotechnology through the elaboration of a new standard-setting instrument on the ethics of neurotechnology, to be adopted in 2025. To this end, it is important to explore the neurotechnology landscape, delineate its boundaries, key players, and trends, and shed light on neurotech’s scientific and technological developments. [p. 7]

Here’s how they sourced the data for the report,

The present report addresses such a need for evidence in support of policy making in
relation to neurotechnology by devising and implementing a novel methodology on data from scientific articles and patents:

● We detect topics over time and extract relevant keywords using a transformer-
based language models fine-tuned for scientific text. Publication data for the period
2000-2021 are sourced from the Scopus database and encompass journal articles
and conference proceedings in English. The 2,000 most cited publications per year
are further used in in-depth content analysis.
● Keywords are identified through Named Entity Recognition and used to generate
search queries for conducting a semantic search on patents’ titles and abstracts,
using another language model developed for patent text. This allows us to identify
patents associated with the identified neuroscience publications and their topics.
The patent data used in the present analysis are sourced from the European
Patent Office’s Worldwide Patent Statistical Database (PATSTAT). We consider
IP5 patents filed between 2000-2020 having an English language abstract and
exclude patents solely related to pharmaceuticals.

This approach allows mapping the advancements detailed in scientific literature to the technological applications contained in patent applications, allowing for an analysis of the linkages between science and technology. This almost fully automated novel approach allows repeating the analysis as neurotechnology evolves. [pp. 8-9[

Findings in bullet points,

Key stylized facts are:
● The field of neuroscience has witnessed a remarkable surge in the overall number
of publications since 2000, exhibiting a nearly 35-fold increase over the period
considered, reaching 1.2 million in 2021. The annual number of publications in
neuroscience has nearly tripled since 2000, exceeding 90,000 publications a year
in 2021. This increase became even more pronounced since 2019.
● The United States leads in terms of neuroscience publication output (40%),
followed by the United Kingdom (9%), Germany (7%), China (5%), Canada (4%),
Japan (4%), Italy (4%), France (4%), the Netherlands (3%), and Australia (3%).
These countries account for over 80% of neuroscience publications from 2000 to
2021.
● Big divides emerge, with 70% of countries in the world having less than 10 high-
impact neuroscience publications between 2000 to 2021.
● Specific neurotechnology-related research trends between 2000 and 2021 include:
○ An increase in Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) research around 2010,
maintaining a consistent presence ever since.
○ A significant surge in Epilepsy Detection research in 2017 and 2018,
reflecting the increased use of AI and machine learning in healthcare.
○ Consistent interest in Neuroimaging Analysis, which peaks around 2004,
likely because of its importance in brain activity and language
comprehension studies.
○ While peaking in 2016 and 2017, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) remains a
persistent area of research, underlining its potential in treating conditions
like Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor.
● Between 2000 and 2020, the total number of patent applications in this field
increased significantly, experiencing a 20-fold increase from less than 500 to over
12,000. In terms of annual figures, a consistent upward trend in neurotechnology-10
related patent applications emerges, with a notable doubling observed between
2015 and 2020.
• The United States account for nearly half of all worldwide patent applications (47%).
Other major contributors include South Korea (11%), China (10%), Japan (7%),
Germany (7%), and France (5%). These five countries together account for 87%
of IP5 neurotech patents applied between 2000 and 2020.
○ The United States has historically led the field, with a peak around 2010, a
decline towards 2015, and a recovery up to 2020.
○ South Korea emerged as a significant contributor after 1990, overtaking
Germany in the late 2000s to become the second-largest developer of
neurotechnology. By the late 2010s, South Korea’s annual neurotechnology
patent applications approximated those of the United States.
○ China exhibits a sharp increase in neurotechnology patent applications in
the mid-2010s, bringing it on par with the United States in terms of
application numbers.
● The United States ranks highest in both scientific publications and patents,
indicating their strong ability to transform knowledge into marketable inventions.
China, France, and Korea excel in leveraging knowledge to develop patented
innovations. Conversely, countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy,
Canada, Brazil, and Australia lag behind in effectively translating neurotech
knowledge into patentable innovations.
● In terms of patent quality measured by forward citations, the leading countries are
Germany, US, China, Japan, and Korea.
● A breakdown of patents by technology field reveals that Computer Technology is
the most important field in neurotechnology, exceeding Medical Technology,
Biotechnology, and Pharmaceuticals. The growing importance of algorithmic
applications, including neural computing techniques, also emerges by looking at
the increase in patent applications in these fields between 2015-2020. Compared
to the reference year, computer technologies-related patents in neurotech
increased by 355% and by 92% in medical technology.
● An analysis of the specialization patterns of the top-5 countries developing
neurotechnologies reveals that Germany has been specializing in chemistry-
related technology fields, whereas Asian countries, particularly South Korea and
China, focus on computer science and electrical engineering-related fields. The
United States exhibits a balanced configuration with specializations in both
chemistry and computer science-related fields.
● The entities – i.e. both companies and other institutions – leading worldwide
innovation in the neurotech space are: IBM (126 IP5 patents, US), Ping An
Technology (105 IP5 patents, CH), Fujitsu (78 IP5 patents, JP), Microsoft (76 IP511
patents, US)1, Samsung (72 IP5 patents, KR), Sony (69 IP5 patents JP) and Intel
(64 IP5 patents US)

This report further proposes a pioneering taxonomy of neurotechnologies based on International Patent Classification (IPC) codes.

• 67 distinct patent clusters in neurotechnology are identified, which mirror the diverse research and development landscape of the field. The 20 most prominent neurotechnology groups, particularly in areas like multimodal neuromodulation, seizure prediction, neuromorphic computing [emphasis mine], and brain-computer interfaces, point to potential strategic areas for research and commercialization.
• The variety of patent clusters identified mirrors the breadth of neurotechnology’s potential applications, from medical imaging and limb rehabilitation to sleep optimization and assistive exoskeletons.
• The development of a baseline IPC-based taxonomy for neurotechnology offers a structured framework that enriches our understanding of this technological space, and can facilitate research, development and analysis. The identified key groups mirror the interdisciplinary nature of neurotechnology and underscores the potential impact of neurotechnology, not only in healthcare but also in areas like information technology and biomaterials, with non-negligible effects over societies and economies.

1 If we consider Microsoft Technology Licensing LLM and Microsoft Corporation as being under the same umbrella, Microsoft leads worldwide developments with 127 IP5 patents. Similarly, if we were to consider that Siemens AG and Siemens Healthcare GmbH belong to the same conglomerate, Siemens would appear much higher in the ranking, in third position, with 84 IP5 patents. The distribution of intellectual property assets across companies belonging to the same conglomerate is frequent and mirrors strategic as well as operational needs and features, among others. [pp. 9-11]

Surprises and comments

Interesting and helpful to learn that “neurotechnology interacts with other technological trajectories, especially Artificial Intelligence;” this has changed and improved my understanding of neurotechnology.

It was unexpected to find Canada in the top ten countries producing neuroscience papers. However, finding out that the country lags in translating its ‘neuro’ knowledge into patentable innovation is not entirely a surprise.

It can’t be an accident that countries with major ‘electronics and computing’ companies lead in patents. These companies do have researchers but they also buy startups to acquire patents. They (and ‘patent trolls’) will also file patents preemptively. For the patent trolls, it’s a moneymaking proposition and for the large companies, it’s a way of protecting their own interests and/or (I imagine) forcing a sale.

The mention of neuromorphic (brainlike) computing in the taxonomy section was surprising and puzzling. Up to this point, I’ve thought of neuromorphic computing as a kind of alternative or addition to standard computing but the authors have blurred the lines as per UNESCO’s definition of neurotechnology (specifically, “… emulate the structure and function of the neural systems of animals or human beings”) . Again, this report is broadening my understanding of neurotechnology. Of course, it required two instances before I quite grasped it, the definition and the taxonomy.

What’s puzzling is that neuromorphic engineering, a broader term that includes neuromorphic computing, isn’t used or mentioned. (For an explanation of the terms neuromorphic computing and neuromorphic engineering, there’s my June 23, 2023 posting, “Neuromorphic engineering: an overview.” )

The report

I won’t have time for everything. Here are some of the highlights from my admittedly personal perspective.

It’s not only about curing disease

From the report,

Neurotechnology’s applications however extend well beyond medicine [emphasis mine], and span from research, to education, to the workplace, and even people’s everyday life. Neurotechnology-based solutions may enhance learning and skill acquisition and boost focus through brain stimulation techniques. For instance, early research finds that brain- zapping caps appear to boost memory for at least one month (Berkeley, 2022). This could one day be used at home to enhance memory functions [emphasis mine]. They can further enable new ways to interact with the many digital devices we use in everyday life, transforming the way we work, live and interact. One example is the Sound Awareness wristband developed by a Stanford team (Neosensory, 2022) which enables individuals to “hear” by converting sound into tactile feedback, so that sound impaired individuals can perceive spoken words through their skin. Takagi and Nishimoto (2023) analyzed the brain scans taken through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as individuals were shown thousands of images. They then trained a generative AI tool called Stable Diffusion2 on the brain scan data of the study’s participants, thus creating images that roughly corresponded to the real images shown. While this does not correspond to reading the mind of people, at least not yet, and some limitations of the study have been highlighted (Parshall, 2023), it nevertheless represents an important step towards developing the capability to interface human thoughts with computers [emphasis mine], via brain data interpretation.

While the above examples may sound somewhat like science fiction, the recent uptake of generative Artificial Intelligence applications and of large language models such as ChatGPT or Bard, demonstrates that the seemingly impossible can quickly become an everyday reality. At present, anyone can purchase online electroencephalogram (EEG) devices for a few hundred dollars [emphasis mine], to measure the electrical activity of their brain for meditation, gaming, or other purposes. [pp. 14-15]

This is very impressive achievement. Some of the research cited was published earlier this year (2023). The extraordinary speed is a testament to the efforts by the authors and their teams. It’s also a testament to how quickly the field is moving.

I’m glad to see the mention of and focus on consumer neurotechnology. (While the authors don’t speculate, I am free to do so.) Consumer neurotechnology could be viewed as one of the steps toward normalizing a cyborg future for all of us. Yes, we have books, television programmes, movies, and video games, which all normalize the idea but the people depicted have been severely injured and require the augmentation. With consumer neurotechnology, you have easily accessible devices being used to enhance people who aren’t injured, they just want to be ‘better’.

This phrase seemed particularly striking “… an important step towards developing the capability to interface human thoughts with computers” in light of some claims made by the Australian military in my June 13, 2023 posting “Mind-controlled robots based on graphene: an Australian research story.” (My posting has an embedded video demonstrating the Brain Robotic Interface (BRI) in action. Also, see the paragraph below the video for my ‘measured’ response.)

There’s no mention of the military in the report which seems more like a deliberate rather than inadvertent omission given the importance of military innovation where technology is concerned.

This section gives a good overview of government initiatives (in the report it’s followed by a table of the programmes),

Thanks to the promises it holds, neurotechnology has garnered significant attention from both governments and the private sector and is considered by many as an investment priority. According to the International Brain Initiative (IBI), brain research funding has become increasingly important over the past ten years, leading to a rise in large-scale state-led programs aimed at advancing brain intervention technologies(International Brain Initiative, 2021). Since 2013, initiatives such as the United States’ Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative and the European Union’s Human Brain Project (HBP), as well as major national initiatives in China, Japan and South Korea have been launched with significant funding support from the respective governments. The Canadian Brain Research Strategy, initially operated as a multi- stakeholder coalition on brain research, is also actively seeking funding support from the government to transform itself into a national research initiative (Canadian Brain Research Strategy, 2022). A similar proposal is also seen in the case of the Australian Brain Alliance, calling for the establishment of an Australian Brain Initiative (Australian Academy of Science, n.d.). [pp. 15-16]

Privacy

There are some concerns such as these,

Beyond the medical realm, research suggests that emotional responses of consumers
related to preferences and risks can be concurrently tracked by neurotechnology, such
as neuroimaging and that neural data can better predict market-level outcomes than
traditional behavioral data (Karmarkar and Yoon, 2016). As such, neural data is
increasingly sought after in the consumer market for purposes such as digital
phenotyping4, neurogaming 5,and neuromarketing6 (UNESCO, 2021). This surge in demand gives rise to risks like hacking, unauthorized data reuse, extraction of privacy-sensitive information, digital surveillance, criminal exploitation of data, and other forms of abuse. These risks prompt the question of whether neural data needs distinct definition and safeguarding measures.

These issues are particularly relevant today as a wide range of electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets that can be used at home are now available in consumer markets for purposes that range from meditation assistance to controlling electronic devices through the mind. Imagine an individual is using one of these devices to play a neurofeedback game, which records the person’s brain waves during the game. Without the person being aware, the system can also identify the patterns associated with an undiagnosed mental health condition, such as anxiety. If the game company sells this data to third parties, e.g. health insurance providers, this may lead to an increase of insurance fees based on undisclosed information. This hypothetical situation would represent a clear violation of mental privacy and of unethical use of neural data.

Another example is in the field of advertising, where companies are increasingly interested in using neuroimaging to better understand consumers’ responses to their products or advertisements, a practice known as neuromarketing. For instance, a company might use neural data to determine which advertisements elicit the most positive emotional responses in consumers. While this can help companies improve their marketing strategies, it raises significant concerns about mental privacy. Questions arise in relation to consumers being aware or not that their neural data is being used, and in the extent to which this can lead to manipulative advertising practices that unfairly exploit unconscious preferences. Such potential abuses underscore the need for explicit consent and rigorous data protection measures in the use of neurotechnology for neuromarketing purposes. [pp. 21-22]

Legalities

Some countries already have laws and regulations regarding neurotechnology data,

At the national level, only a few countries have enacted laws and regulations to protect mental integrity or have included neuro-data in personal data protection laws (UNESCO, University of Milan-Bicocca (Italy) and State University of New York – Downstate Health Sciences University, 2023). Examples are the constitutional reform undertaken by Chile (Republic of Chile, 2021), the Charter for the responsible development of neurotechnologies of the Government of France (Government of France, 2022), and the Digital Rights Charter of the Government of Spain (Government of Spain, 2021). They propose different approaches to the regulation and protection of human rights in relation to neurotechnology. Countries such as the UK are also examining under which circumstances neural data may be considered as a special category of data under the general data protection framework (i.e. UK’s GDPR) (UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, 2023) [p. 24]

As you can see, these are recent laws. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt here in Canada even though there is an act being reviewed in Parliament that could conceivably include neural data. This is from my May 1, 2023 posting,

Bill C-27 (Digital Charter Implementation Act, 2022) is what I believe is called an omnibus bill as it includes three different pieces of proposed legislation (the Consumer Privacy Protection Act [CPPA], the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act [AIDA], and the Personal Information and Data Protection Tribunal Act [PIDPTA]). [emphasis added July 11, 2023] You can read the Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada summary here or a detailed series of descriptions of the act here on the ISED’s Canada’s Digital Charter webpage.

My focus at the time was artificial intelligence and, now, after reading this UNESCO report and briefly looking at the Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada summary and a detailed series of descriptions of the act on ISED’s Canada’s Digital Charter webpage, I don’t see anything that specifies neural data but it’s not excluded either.

IP5 patents

Here’s the explanation (the footnote is included at the end of the excerpt),

IP5 patents represent a subset of overall patents filed worldwide, which have the
characteristic of having been filed in at least one top intellectual property offices (IPO)
worldwide (the so called IP5, namely the Chinese National Intellectual Property
Administration, CNIPA (formerly SIPO); the European Patent Office, EPO; the Japan
Patent Office, JPO; the Korean Intellectual Property Office, KIPO; and the United States
Patent and Trademark Office, USPTO) as well as another country, which may or may not be an IP5. This signals their potential applicability worldwide, as their inventiveness and industrial viability have been validated by at least two leading IPOs. This gives these patents a sort of “quality” check, also since patenting inventions is costly and if applicants try to protect the same invention in several parts of the world, this normally mirrors that the applicant has expectations about their importance and expected value. If we were to conduct the same analysis using information about individually considered patent applied worldwide, i.e. without filtering for quality nor considering patent families, we would risk conducting a biased analysis based on duplicated data. Also, as patentability standards vary across countries and IPOs, and what matters for patentability is the existence (or not) of prior art in the IPO considered, we would risk mixing real innovations with patents related to catching up phenomena in countries that are not at the forefront of the technology considered.

9 The five IP offices (IP5) is a forum of the five largest intellectual property offices in the world that was set up to improve the efficiency of the examination process for patents worldwide. The IP5 Offices together handle about 80% of the world’s patent applications, and 95% of all work carried out under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), see http://www.fiveipoffices.org. (Dernis et al., 2015) [p. 31]

AI assistance on this report

As noted earlier I have next to no experience with the analytical tools having not attempted this kind of work in several years. Here’s an example of what they were doing,

We utilize a combination of text embeddings based on Bidirectional Encoder
Representations from Transformer (BERT), dimensionality reduction, and hierarchical
clustering inspired by the BERTopic methodology 12 to identify latent themes within
research literature. Latent themes or topics in the context of topic modeling represent
clusters of words that frequently appear together within a collection of documents (Blei, 2012). These groupings are not explicitly labeled but are inferred through computational analysis examining patterns in word usage. These themes are ‘hidden’ within the text, only to be revealed through this analysis. …

We further utilize OpenAI’s GPT-4 model to enrich our understanding of topics’ keywords and to generate topic labels (OpenAI, 2023), thus supplementing expert review of the broad interdisciplinary corpus. Recently, GPT-4 has shown impressive results in medical contexts across various evaluations (Nori et al., 2023), making it a useful tool to enhance the information obtained from prior analysis stages, and to complement them. The automated process enhances the evaluation workflow, effectively emphasizing neuroscience themes pertinent to potential neurotechnology patents. Notwithstanding existing concerns about hallucinations (Lee, Bubeck and Petro, 2023) and errors in generative AI models, this methodology employs the GPT-4 model for summarization and interpretation tasks, which significantly mitigates the likelihood of hallucinations. Since the model is constrained to the context provided by the keyword collections, it limits the potential for fabricating information outside of the specified boundaries, thereby enhancing the accuracy and reliability of the output. [pp. 33-34]

I couldn’t resist adding the ChatGPT paragraph given all of the recent hoopla about it.

Multimodal neuromodulation and neuromorphic computing patents

I think this gives a pretty good indication of the activity on the patent front,

The largest, coherent topic, termed “multimodal neuromodulation,” comprises 535
patents detailing methodologies for deep or superficial brain stimulation designed to
address neurological and psychiatric ailments. These patented technologies interact with various points in neural circuits to induce either Long-Term Potentiation (LTP) or Long-Term Depression (LTD), offering treatment for conditions such as obsession, compulsion, anxiety, depression, Parkinson’s disease, and other movement disorders. The modalities encompass implanted deep-brain stimulators (DBS), Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), and transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS). Among the most representative documents for this cluster are patents with titles: Electrical stimulation of structures within the brain or Systems and methods for enhancing or optimizing neural stimulation therapy for treating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and or other movement disorders. [p.65]

Given my longstanding interest in memristors, which (I believe) have to a large extent helped to stimulate research into neuromorphic computing, this had to be included. Then, there was the brain-computer interfaces cluster,

A cluster identified as “Neuromorphic Computing” consists of 366 patents primarily
focused on devices designed to mimic human neural networks for efficient and adaptable computation. The principal elements of these inventions are resistive memory cells and artificial synapses. They exhibit properties similar to the neurons and synapses in biological brains, thus granting these devices the ability to learn and modulate responses based on rewards, akin to the adaptive cognitive capabilities of the human brain.

The primary technology classes associated with these patents fall under specific IPC
codes, representing the fields of neural network models, analog computers, and static
storage structures. Essentially, these classifications correspond to technologies that are key to the construction of computers and exhibit cognitive functions similar to human brain processes.

Examples for this cluster include neuromorphic processing devices that leverage
variations in resistance to store and process information, artificial synapses exhibiting
spike-timing dependent plasticity, and systems that allow event-driven learning and
reward modulation within neuromorphic computers.

In relation to neurotechnology as a whole, the “neuromorphic computing” cluster holds significant importance. It embodies the fusion of neuroscience and technology, thereby laying the basis for the development of adaptive and cognitive computational systems. Understanding this specific cluster provides a valuable insight into the progressing domain of neurotechnology, promising potential advancements across diverse fields, including artificial intelligence and healthcare.

The “Brain-Computer Interfaces” cluster, consisting of 146 patents, embodies a key aspect of neurotechnology that focuses on improving the interface between the brain and external devices. The technology classification codes associated with these patents primarily refer to methods or devices for treatment or protection of eyes and ears, devices for introducing media into, or onto, the body, and electric communication techniques, which are foundational elements of brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies.

Key patents within this cluster include a brain-computer interface apparatus adaptable to use environment and method of operating thereof, a double closed circuit brain-machine interface system, and an apparatus and method of brain-computer interface for device controlling based on brain signal. These inventions mainly revolve around the concept of using brain signals to control external devices, such as robotic arms, and improving the classification performance of these interfaces, even after long periods of non-use.

The inventions described in these patents improve the accuracy of device control, maintain performance over time, and accommodate multiple commands, thus significantly enhancing the functionality of BCIs.

Other identified technologies include systems for medical image analysis, limb rehabilitation, tinnitus treatment, sleep optimization, assistive exoskeletons, and advanced imaging techniques, among others. [pp. 66-67]

Having sections on neuromorphic computing and brain-computer interface patents in immediate proximity led to more speculation on my part. Imagine how much easier it would be to initiate a BCI connection if it’s powered with a neuromorphic (brainlike) computer/device. [ETA July 21, 2023: Following on from that thought, it might be more than just easier to initiate a BCI connection. Could a brainlike computer become part of your brain? Why not? it’s been successfully argued that a robotic wheelchair was part of someone’s body, see my January 30, 2013 posting and scroll down about 40% of the way.)]

Neurotech policy debates

The report concludes with this,

Neurotechnology is a complex and rapidly evolving technological paradigm whose
trajectories have the power to shape people’s identity, autonomy, privacy, sentiments,
behaviors and overall well-being, i.e. the very essence of what it means to be human.

Designing and implementing careful and effective norms and regulations ensuring that neurotechnology is developed and deployed in an ethical manner, for the good of
individuals and for society as a whole, call for a careful identification and characterization of the issues at stake. This entails shedding light on the whole neurotechnology ecosystem, that is what is being developed, where and by whom, and also understanding how neurotechnology interacts with other developments and technological trajectories, especially AI. Failing to do so may result in ineffective (at best) or distorted policies and policy decisions, which may harm human rights and human dignity.

Addressing the need for evidence in support of policy making, the present report offers first time robust data and analysis shedding light on the neurotechnology landscape worldwide. To this end, its proposes and implements an innovative approach that leverages artificial intelligence and deep learning on data from scientific publications and paten[t]s to identify scientific and technological developments in the neurotech space. The methodology proposed represents a scientific advance in itself, as it constitutes a quasi- automated replicable strategy for the detection and documentation of neurotechnology- related breakthroughs in science and innovation, to be repeated over time to account for the evolution of the sector. Leveraging this approach, the report further proposes an IPC-based taxonomy for neurotechnology which allows for a structured framework to the exploration of neurotechnology, to enable future research, development and analysis. The innovative methodology proposed is very flexible and can in fact be leveraged to investigate different emerging technologies, as they arise.

In terms of technological trajectories, we uncover a shift in the neurotechnology industry, with greater emphasis being put on computer and medical technologies in recent years, compared to traditionally dominant trajectories related to biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. This shift warrants close attention from policymakers, and calls for attention in relation to the latest (converging) developments in the field, especially AI and related methods and applications and neurotechnology.

This is all the more important and the observed growth and specialization patterns are unfolding in the context of regulatory environments that, generally, are either not existent or not fit for purpose. Given the sheer implications and impact of neurotechnology on the very essence of human beings, this lack of regulation poses key challenges related to the possible infringement of mental integrity, human dignity, personal identity, privacy, freedom of thought, and autonomy, among others. Furthermore, issues surrounding accessibility and the potential for neurotech enhancement applications triggers significant concerns, with far-reaching implications for individuals and societies. [pp. 72-73]

Last words about the report

Informative, readable, and thought-provoking. And, it helped broaden my understanding of neurotechnology.

Future endeavours?

I’m hopeful that one of these days one of these groups (UNESCO, Canadian Science Policy Centre, or ???) will tackle the issue of business bankruptcy in the neurotechnology sector. It has already occurred as noted in my ““Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy [long read]” April 5, 2022 posting. That story opens with a woman going blind in a New York subway when her neural implant fails. It’s how she found out the company, which supplied her implant was going out of business.

In my July 7, 2023 posting about the UNESCO July 2023 dialogue on neurotechnology, I’ve included information on Neuralink (one of Elon Musk’s companies) and its approval (despite some investigations) by the US Food and Drug Administration to start human clinical trials. Scroll down about 75% of the way to the “Food for thought” subhead where you will find stories about allegations made against Neuralink.

The end

If you want to know more about the field, the report offers a seven-page bibliography and there’s a lot of material here where you can start with this December 3, 2019 posting “Neural and technological inequalities” which features an article mentioning a discussion between two scientists. Surprisingly (to me), the source article is in Fast Company (a leading progressive business media brand), according to their tagline)..

I have two categories you may want to check: Human Enhancement and Neuromorphic Engineering. There are also a number of tags: neuromorphic computing, machine/flesh, brainlike computing, cyborgs, neural implants, neuroprosthetics, memristors, and more.

Should you have any observations or corrections, please feel free to leave them in the Comments section of this posting.

In vitro biological neural networks (BNNs): review paper

The race to merge the biological with machines continues apace as this press release makes clear, From a March 9, 2023 Beijing Institute of Technology Press Co. press release on EurekAlert, Note: A link has been removed,

A review paper by scientists at the Beijing Institute of Technology summarized recent efforts and future potentials in the use of in vitro biological neural networks (BNNs) for the realization of biological intelligence, with a focus on those related to robot intelligence.

The review paper, published on Jan. 10 in the journal Cyborg and Bionic Systems, provided an overview of 1) the underpinnings of intelligence presented in in vitro BNNs, such as memory and learning; 2) how these BNNs can be embodied with robots through bidirectional connection, forming so-called BNN-based neuro-robotic systems; 3) preliminary intelligent behaviors achieved by these neuro-robotic systems; and 4) current trends and future challenges in the research area of BNN-based neuro-robotic systems.

“our human brain is a complex biological neural network (BNN) composed of billions of neurons, which gives rise to our consciousness and intelligence. However, studying the brain as a whole is extremely challenging due to its intricate nature. By culturing a part of the neurons from the brain in a Petri dish, simpler BNNs, such as mini-brains, can be formed, allowing for easier observation and investigation of the network. These mini-brains may provide valuable insights into the enigmatic origins of consciousness and intelligence.” explained study author Zhiqiang Yu, an assistant researcher at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

“Interestingly, mini-brains are not only structurally similar to human brains, but they can also learn and memorize information in a similar way.” said Yu. In particular, these in vitro BNNs share the same basic structure as in vivo BNNs, where neurons are connected through synapses, and they exhibit short-term memory through fading and hidden memory processes. Additionally, these mini-brains can perform supervised learning and be trained to respond to specific stimuli signals. Recently, researchers have demonstrated that in vitro BNNs can even accomplish unsupervised learning tasks, such as separating mixed signals. “This fascinating ability may have something to do with the famous free energy principle. That is, these BNNs have a tendency to minimize their uncertainty about the outer world,” said Yu.

These abilities of in vitro BNNs are quite intriguing. However, only having such a ‘mini-brain’ on your hand is not enough for the rise of consciousness and intelligence. Our brain relies on our body to perceive, comprehend, and adapt to the outside world, and similarly, these mini-brains require a body to interact with their environment. A robot is an ideal candidate for this purpose, leading to a burgeoning interdisciplinary field at the intersection of neuroscience and robotics: BNN-based neuro-robotic systems.

“A stable bidirectional connection is a prerequisite for these systems.” said study authors, “In this review, we summarize the mainstream means of constructing such a bidirectional connection, which can be broadly classified into two categories based on the direction of connection: from robots to BNNs and from BNNs to robots.” The former involves transmitting sensor signals from the robot to BNNs, utilizing electrical, optical, and chemical stimulation methods, while the latter records the neural activities of BNNs and decode these activities into commands to control the robot, using extracellular, calcium, and intracellular recording techniques.

“Embodied by robots, in vitro BNNs exhibit a wide range of fascinating intelligent behaviors,” according to Yu. “These behaviors include supervised and unsupervised learning, memorization, mobile object tracking, active obstacle avoidance, and even learning to play games such as ‘Pong’.”

The intelligent behaviors displayed by these BNN-based neuro-robotic systems can be divided into two categories based on their dependence on either computing capacity or network plasticity, as explained by Yu. “In computing capacity-dependent behaviors, learning is unnecessary, and the BNN is regarded as an information processor that generates specific neural activities in response to stimuli. However, for the latter, learning is a crucial process, as the BNN adapts to stimuli and these changes are integral to the behaviors or tasks performed by the robot,” added Yu.

To facilitate easy comparison of the recording and stimulation techniques, encoding and decoding rules, training policies, and robot tasks, representative studies from these two categories have been compiled into two tables. Additionally, to provide readers with a historical overview of BNN-based neuro-robotic systems, several noteworthy studies have been selected and arranged chronologically.

The study authors also discussed current trends and main challenges in the field. According to Yu, “Four challenges are keen to be addressed and are being intensely investigated. How to fabricate BNNs in 3D, thereby making in vitro BNNs close to their in vivo counterparts, is the most urgent one of them”

Perhaps the most challenging aspect is how to train these robot-embodied BNNs. The study authors noted that BNNs are composed only of neurons and lack the participation of various neuromodulators, which makes it difficult to transplant various animal training methods to BNNs. Additionally, BNNs have their own limitations. While a monkey can be trained to ride a bicycle, it is much more challenging to accomplish tasks that require higher-level thought processes, such as playing Go.

“The mystery of how consciousness and intelligence emerge from the network of cells in our brains still eludes neuroscientists” said Yu. However, with the development of embodying in vitro BNNs with robots, we may observe more intelligent behaviors in them and bring people closer to the truth behind the mystery.

I think that ‘in vitro biological neural networks (BNNs) or mini-brains’ can also be called brain organoids, which seems to be the more popular term in some circles.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

An Overview of In Vitro Biological Neural Networks for Robot Intelligence by Zhe Chen, Qian Liang, Zihou Wei, Xie Chen, Qing Shi, Zhiqiang Yu, and Tao Sun. Cyborg and Bionic Systems 10 Jan 2023 Vol 4 Article ID: 0001 DOI: 10.34133/cbsystems.0001

This paper is open access.

SkinKit: smart tattoo provides on-skin computing

The SkinKit wearable sensing interface, developed in the Hybrid Body Lab, can be used for health and wellness, personal safety, as assistive technology and for athletic training, among many applications. Hybrid Body Lab/Provided

A November 3, 2022 Cornell University news release on EurekAlert announces a computer you can attach to your skin (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers at Cornell University have come up with a reliable, skin-tight computing system that’s easy to attach and detach, and can be used for a variety of purposes – from health monitoring to fashion.

On-skin interfaces – sometimes known as “smart tattoos” – have the potential to outperform the sensing capabilities of current wearable technologies but combining comfort and durability has proven challenging.

“We’ve been working on this for years,” said Cindy (Hsin-Liu) Kao, assistant professor of human centered design, and the study’s senior author, “and I think we’ve finally figured out a lot of the technical challenges. We wanted to create a modular approach to smart tattoos, to make them as straightforward as building Legos.”

SkinKit – a plug-and-play system that aims to “lower the floor for entry” to on-skin interfaces for those with little or no technical expertise – is the product of countless hours of development, testing and redevelopment, Kao said. Fabrication is done with temporary tattoo paper, silicone textile stabilizer and water, creating a multi-layer thin film structure they call “skin cloth.” The layered material can be cut into desired shapes and fitted with electronics hardware to perform a range of tasks.

“The wearer can easily attach them together and also detach them,” said Pin-Sung Ku, lead author of the paper and Hybrid Body Lab member. “Let’s say that today you want to use one of the sensors for certain purposes, but tomorrow you want it for something different. You can easily just detach them and reuse some of the modules to make a new device in minutes.”

The paper “SkinKit: Construction Kit for On-Skin Interface Prototyping” was presented at UbiComp ’22, the Association for Computing Machinery’s international joint conference on pervasive and ubiquitous computing.

Here’s a SkinKit video provided by Cornell University’s Hybrid Body Lab,

Tom Fleischman’s November 3, 2022 story for the Cornell Chronicle provides more details about SkinKit (Note: Links have been removed),

SkinKit – a plug-and-play system that aims to “lower the floor for entry” to on-skin interfaces, Kao said, for those with little or no technical expertise – is the product of countless hours of development, testing and redevelopment, she said.

Kao’s lab is also very conscious of cultural differences generally, and she thinks it’s important to bring these devices to diverse populations.

“People from different cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities can have very different perceptions toward these devices,” she said. “We felt it’s actually very important to let more people have a voice in saying what they want these smart tattoos to do.”

To test SkinKit, the researchers first recruited nine participants with both STEM and design backgrounds to build and wear the devices. Their input from the 90-minute workshop helped inform further modifications, which the group performed before conducting a larger, two-day study involving 25 participants with both STEM and design backgrounds.

Devices designed by the 25 study participants addressed: health and wellness, including temperature sensors to detect fever due to COVID-19; personal safety, including a device that would help the wearer maintain social distance during the pandemic; notification, including an arm-worn device that a runner could wear that would vibrate when a vehicle was near; and assistive technology, such as a wrist-worn sensor for the blind that would vibrate when the wearer was about to bump into an object.

Kao said members of her lab, including Ku, took part in the 4-H Career Explorations Conference over the summer, and had approximately 10 middle-schoolers from upstate New York build their own SkinKit devices.

“I think it just shows us a lot of potential for STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] learning, and especially to be able to engage people who maybe originally wouldn’t have interest in STEM,” Kao said. “But by combining it with body art and fashion, I think there’s a lot of potential for it to engage the next generation and broader populations to explore the future of smart tattoos.”

Here’s a citation for the paper,

SkinKit: Construction Kit for On-Skin Interface Prototyping” by Pin-Sung Ku, Md. Tahmidul Islam Molla, Kunpeng Huang, Priya Kattappurath, Krithik Ranjan, Hsin-Liu Cindy Kao. Proceedings of the ACM [Aossciation for Computing Machinery] on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies Volume 5 Issue 4 Dec 2021 Article No.: 165pp 1–23 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3494989 Published: 30 December 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

The Hybrid Body Lab can be found here (the pictures are fascinating). Here’s more from their About page,

The Hybrid Body Lab at Cornell University, founded and directed by Prof. Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, focuses on the invention of culturally-inspired materials, processes, and tools for crafting technology on the body surface. Designing across scales, we explore how body scale interfaces can enhance our relations with everyday products and both natural and man-made environments. We conduct research at the intersection of Human-Computer Interaction, Wearable & Ubiquitous Computing, Digital Fabrication, Interaction Design, and Fashion & Body Art. We synthesize this knowledge to contribute a culturally-sensitive lens to the future of designs that interface the body and the environment. Our current investigations include:

Wearable Technology & On-Skin Interfaces
We develop novel wearable interfaces and fabrication processes, which a focus on skin-conformable or textile-based form factors. By hybridizing miniaturized robotics, machines, and materials with cultural body decoration practices, we investigate how technology can be situated as a culturally meaningful material for crafting our identities.

Designing Skins Across Scales
‘Many different types of machines that were parts of architecture have become parts of our bodies.’ —Bill Mitchell, Me++

We design “skins” that can be adapted across scales, from the architectural to the body scale. We investigate the interactions of a wearer’s body-borne interface with its surrounding ecology. This includes its interaction with other people, objects, to environments. We are also interested in developing skins that can be deployed across scales — from the body to the architectural scale.

Understanding Social Perceptions Towards On-Body Technologies
Wearable devices have evolved towards intrinsic human augmentation, unlocking the human skin as an interface for seamless interaction. However, the non-traditional form factor of these on-skin interfaces may raise concerns for public wear. These perceptions will influence whether a new form of technology will eventually be accepted, or rejected by society.  We investigate the cultural and social concerns that need to be considered when generating on-body technologies for inclusive design.

FrogHeart’s 2022 comes to an end as 2023 comes into view

I look forward to 2023 and hope it will be as stimulating as 2022 proved to be. Here’s an overview of the year that was on this blog:

Sounds of science

It seems 2022 was the year that science discovered the importance of sound and the possibilities of data sonification. Neither is new but this year seemed to signal a surge of interest or maybe I just happened to stumble onto more of the stories than usual.

This is not an exhaustive list, you can check out my ‘Music’ category for more here. I have tried to include audio files with the postings but it all depends on how accessible the researchers have made them.

Aliens on earth: machinic biology and/or biological machinery?

When I first started following stories in 2008 (?) about technology or machinery being integrated with the human body, it was mostly about assistive technologies such as neuroprosthetics. You’ll find most of this year’s material in the ‘Human Enhancement’ category or you can search the tag ‘machine/flesh’.

However, the line between biology and machine became a bit more blurry for me this year. You can see what’s happening in the titles listed below (you may recognize the zenobot story; there was an earlier version of xenobots featured here in 2021):

This was the story that shook me,

Are the aliens going to come from outer space or are we becoming the aliens?

Brains (biological and otherwise), AI, & our latest age of anxiety

As we integrate machines into our bodies, including our brains, there are new issues to consider:

  • Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy (long read) April 5, 2022 posting
  • US National Academies Sept. 22-23, 2022 workshop on techno, legal & ethical issues of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) September 21, 2022 posting

I hope the US National Academies issues a report on their “Brain-Machine and Related Neural Interface Technologies: Scientific, Technical, Ethical, and Regulatory Issues – A Workshop” for 2023.

Meanwhile the race to create brainlike computers continues and I have a number of posts which can be found under the category of ‘neuromorphic engineering’ or you can use these search terms ‘brainlike computing’ and ‘memristors’.

On the artificial intelligence (AI) side of things, I finally broke down and added an ‘artificial intelligence (AI) category to this blog sometime between May and August 2021. Previously, I had used the ‘robots’ category as a catchall. There are other stories but these ones feature public engagement and policy (btw, it’s a Canadian Science Policy Centre event), respectively,

  • “The “We are AI” series gives citizens a primer on AI” March 23, 2022 posting
  • “Age of AI and Big Data – Impact on Justice, Human Rights and Privacy Zoom event on September 28, 2022 at 12 – 1:30 pm EDT” September 16, 2022 posting

These stories feature problems, which aren’t new but seem to be getting more attention,

While there have been issues over AI, the arts, and creativity previously, this year they sprang into high relief. The list starts with my two-part review of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s AI show; I share most of my concerns in part two. The third post covers intellectual property issues (mostly visual arts but literary arts get a nod too). The fourth post upends the discussion,

  • “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know? Artificial Intelligence at the Vancouver (Canada) Art Gallery (1 of 2): The Objects” July 28, 2022 posting
  • “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know? Artificial Intelligence at the Vancouver (Canada) Art Gallery (2 of 2): Meditations” July 28, 2022 posting
  • “AI (artificial intelligence) and art ethics: a debate + a Botto (AI artist) October 2022 exhibition in the Uk” October 24, 2022 posting
  • Should AI algorithms get patents for their inventions and is anyone talking about copyright for texts written by AI algorithms? August 30, 2022 posting

Interestingly, most of the concerns seem to be coming from the visual and literary arts communities; I haven’t come across major concerns from the music community. (The curious can check out Vancouver’s Metacreation Lab for Artificial Intelligence [located on a Simon Fraser University campus]. I haven’t seen any cautionary or warning essays there; it’s run by an AI and creativity enthusiast [professor Philippe Pasquier]. The dominant but not sole focus is art, i.e., music and AI.)

There is a ‘new kid on the block’ which has been attracting a lot of attention this month. If you’re curious about the latest and greatest AI anxiety,

  • Peter Csathy’s December 21, 2022 Yahoo News article (originally published in The WRAP) makes this proclamation in the headline “Chat GPT Proves That AI Could Be a Major Threat to Hollywood Creatives – and Not Just Below the Line | PRO Insight”
  • Mouhamad Rachini’s December 15, 2022 article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) online news overs a more generalized overview of the ‘new kid’ along with an embedded CBC Radio file which runs approximately 19 mins. 30 secs. It’s titled “ChatGPT a ‘landmark event’ for AI, but what does it mean for the future of human labour and disinformation?” The chat bot’s developer, OpenAI, has been mentioned here many times including the previously listed July 28, 2022 posting (part two of the VAG review) and the October 24, 2022 posting.

Opposite world (quantum physics in Canada)

Quantum computing made more of an impact here (my blog) than usual. it started in 2021 with the announcement of a National Quantum Strategy in the Canadian federal government budget for that year and gained some momentum in 2022:

  • “Quantum Mechanics & Gravity conference (August 15 – 19, 2022) launches Vancouver (Canada)-based Quantum Gravity Institute and more” July 26, 2022 posting Note: This turned into one of my ‘in depth’ pieces where I comment on the ‘Canadian quantum scene’ and highlight the appointment of an expert panel for the Council of Canada Academies’ report on Quantum Technologies.
  • “Bank of Canada and Multiverse Computing model complex networks & cryptocurrencies with quantum computing” July 25, 2022 posting
  • “Canada, quantum technology, and a public relations campaign?” December 29, 2022 posting

This one was a bit of a puzzle with regard to placement in this end-of-year review, it’s quantum but it’s also about brainlike computing

It’s getting hot in here

Fusion energy made some news this year.

There’s a Vancouver area company, General Fusion, highlighted in both postings and the October posting includes an embedded video of Canadian-born rapper Baba Brinkman’s “You Must LENR” [L ow E nergy N uclear R eactions or sometimes L attice E nabled N anoscale R eactions or Cold Fusion or CANR (C hemically A ssisted N uclear R eactions)].

BTW, fusion energy can generate temperatures up to 150 million degrees Celsius.

Ukraine, science, war, and unintended consequences

Here’s what you might expect,

These are the unintended consequences (from Rachel Kyte’s, Dean of the Fletcher School, Tufts University, December 26, 2022 essay on The Conversation [h/t December 27, 2022 news item on phys.org]), Note: Links have been removed,

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has reverberated through Europe and spread to other countries that have long been dependent on the region for natural gas. But while oil-producing countries and gas lobbyists are arguing for more drilling, global energy investments reflect a quickening transition to cleaner energy. [emphasis mine]

Call it the Putin effect – Russia’s war is speeding up the global shift away from fossil fuels.

In December [2022?], the International Energy Agency [IEA] published two important reports that point to the future of renewable energy.

First, the IEA revised its projection of renewable energy growth upward by 30%. It now expects the world to install as much solar and wind power in the next five years as it installed in the past 50 years.

The second report showed that energy use is becoming more efficient globally, with efficiency increasing by about 2% per year. As energy analyst Kingsmill Bond at the energy research group RMI noted, the two reports together suggest that fossil fuel demand may have peaked. While some low-income countries have been eager for deals to tap their fossil fuel resources, the IEA warns that new fossil fuel production risks becoming stranded, or uneconomic, in the next 20 years.

Kyte’s essay is not all ‘sweetness and light’ but it does provide a little optimism.

Kudos, nanotechnology, culture (pop & otherwise), fun, and a farewell in 2022

This one was a surprise for me,

Sometimes I like to know where the money comes from and I was delighted to learn of the Ărramăt Project funded through the federal government’s New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF). Here’s more about the Ărramăt Project from the February 14, 2022 posting,

“The Ărramăt Project is about respecting the inherent dignity and interconnectedness of peoples and Mother Earth, life and livelihood, identity and expression, biodiversity and sustainability, and stewardship and well-being. Arramăt is a word from the Tamasheq language spoken by the Tuareg people of the Sahel and Sahara regions which reflects this holistic worldview.” (Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine)

Over 150 Indigenous organizations, universities, and other partners will work together to highlight the complex problems of biodiversity loss and its implications for health and well-being. The project Team will take a broad approach and be inclusive of many different worldviews and methods for research (i.e., intersectionality, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary). Activities will occur in 70 different kinds of ecosystems that are also spiritually, culturally, and economically important to Indigenous Peoples.

The project is led by Indigenous scholars and activists …

Kudos to the federal government and all those involved in the Salmon science camps, the Ărramăt Project, and other NFRF projects.

There are many other nanotechnology posts here but this appeals to my need for something lighter at this point,

  • “Say goodbye to crunchy (ice crystal-laden) in ice cream thanks to cellulose nanocrystals (CNC)” August 22, 2022 posting

The following posts tend to be culture-related, high and/or low but always with a science/nanotechnology edge,

Sadly, it looks like 2022 is the last year that Ada Lovelace Day is to be celebrated.

… this year’s Ada Lovelace Day is the final such event due to lack of financial backing. Suw Charman-Anderson told the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] the reason it was now coming to an end was:

You can read more about it here:

In the rearview mirror

A few things that didn’t fit under the previous heads but stood out for me this year. Science podcasts, which were a big feature in 2021, also proliferated in 2022. I think they might have peaked and now (in 2023) we’ll see what survives.

Nanotechnology, the main subject on this blog, continues to be investigated and increasingly integrated into products. You can search the ‘nanotechnology’ category here for posts of interest something I just tried. It surprises even me (I should know better) how broadly nanotechnology is researched and applied.

If you want a nice tidy list, Hamish Johnston in a December 29, 2022 posting on the Physics World Materials blog has this “Materials and nanotechnology: our favourite research in 2022,” Note: Links have been removed,

“Inherited nanobionics” makes its debut

The integration of nanomaterials with living organisms is a hot topic, which is why this research on “inherited nanobionics” is on our list. Ardemis Boghossian at EPFL [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne] in Switzerland and colleagues have shown that certain bacteria will take up single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs). What is more, when the bacteria cells split, the SWCNTs are distributed amongst the daughter cells. The team also found that bacteria containing SWCNTs produce a significantly more electricity when illuminated with light than do bacteria without nanotubes. As a result, the technique could be used to grow living solar cells, which as well as generating clean energy, also have a negative carbon footprint when it comes to manufacturing.

Getting to back to Canada, I’m finding Saskatchewan featured more prominently here. They do a good job of promoting their science, especially the folks at the Canadian Light Source (CLS), Canada’s synchrotron, in Saskatoon. Canadian live science outreach events seeming to be coming back (slowly). Cautious organizers (who have a few dollars to spare) are also enthusiastic about hybrid events which combine online and live outreach.

After what seems like a long pause, I’m stumbling across more international news, e.g. “Nigeria and its nanotechnology research” published December 19, 2022 and “China and nanotechnology” published September 6, 2022. I think there’s also an Iran piece here somewhere.

With that …

Making resolutions in the dark

Hopefully this year I will catch up with the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) output and finally review a few of their 2021 reports such as Leaps and Boundaries; a report on artificial intelligence applied to science inquiry and, perhaps, Powering Discovery; a report on research funding and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Given what appears to a renewed campaign to have germline editing (gene editing which affects all of your descendants) approved in Canada, I might even reach back to a late 2020 CCA report, Research to Reality; somatic gene and engineered cell therapies. it’s not the same as germline editing but gene editing exists on a continuum.

For anyone who wants to see the CCA reports for themselves they can be found here (both in progress and completed).

I’m also going to be paying more attention to how public relations and special interests influence what science is covered and how it’s covered. In doing this 2022 roundup, I noticed that I featured an overview of fusion energy not long before the breakthrough. Indirect influence on this blog?

My post was precipitated by an article by Alex Pasternak in Fast Company. I’m wondering what precipitated Alex Pasternack’s interest in fusion energy since his self-description on the Huffington Post website states this “… focus on the intersections of science, technology, media, politics, and culture. My writing about those and other topics—transportation, design, media, architecture, environment, psychology, art, music … .”

He might simply have received a press release that stimulated his imagination and/or been approached by a communications specialist or publicists with an idea. There’s a reason for why there are so many public relations/media relations jobs and agencies.

Que sera, sera (Whatever will be, will be)

I can confidently predict that 2023 has some surprises in store. I can also confidently predict that the European Union’s big research projects (1B Euros each in funding for the Graphene Flagship and Human Brain Project over a ten year period) will sunset in 2023, ten years after they were first announced in 2013. Unless, the powers that be extend the funding past 2023.

I expect the Canadian quantum community to provide more fodder for me in the form of a 2023 report on Quantum Technologies from the Council of Canadian academies, if nothing else otherwise.

I’ve already featured these 2023 science events but just in case you missed them,

  • 2023 Preview: Bill Nye the Science Guy’s live show and Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. (Scientific Training And Tactical Intelligence Operative Network) coming to Vancouver (Canada) November 24, 2022 posting
  • September 2023: Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand set to welcome women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) November 15, 2022 posting

Getting back to this blog, it may not seem like a new year during the first few weeks of 2023 as I have quite the stockpile of draft posts. At this point I have drafts that are dated from June 2022 and expect to be burning through them so as not to fall further behind but will be interspersing them, occasionally, with more current posts.

Most importantly: a big thank you to everyone who drops by and reads (and sometimes even comments) on my posts!!! it’s very much appreciated and on that note: I wish you all the best for 2023.

Incorporating human cells into computer chips

What are the ethics of incorporating human cells into computer chips? That’s the question that Julian Savulescu (Visiting Professor in biomedical Ethics, University of Melbourne and Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics, University of Oxford), Christopher Gyngell (Research Fellow in Biomedical Ethics, The University of Melbourne), and Tsutomu Sawai (Associate Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences, Hiroshima University) discuss in a May 24, 2022 essay on The Conversation (Note: A link has been removed),

The year is 2030 and we are at the world’s largest tech conference, CES in Las Vegas. A crowd is gathered to watch a big tech company unveil its new smartphone. The CEO comes to the stage and announces the Nyooro, containing the most powerful processor ever seen in a phone. The Nyooro can perform an astonishing quintillion operations per second, which is a thousand times faster than smartphone models in 2020. It is also ten times more energy-efficient with a battery that lasts for ten days.

A journalist asks: “What technological advance allowed such huge performance gains?” The chief executive replies: “We created a new biological chip using lab-grown human neurons. These biological chips are better than silicon chips because they can change their internal structure, adapting to a user’s usage pattern and leading to huge gains in efficiency.”

Another journalist asks: “Aren’t there ethical concerns about computers that use human brain matter?”

Although the name and scenario are fictional, this is a question we have to confront now. In December 2021, Melbourne-based Cortical Labs grew groups of neurons (brain cells) that were incorporated into a computer chip. The resulting hybrid chip works because both brains and neurons share a common language: electricity.

The authors explain their comment that brains and neurons share the common language of electricity (Note: Links have been removed),

In silicon computers, electrical signals travel along metal wires that link different components together. In brains, neurons communicate with each other using electric signals across synapses (junctions between nerve cells). In Cortical Labs’ Dishbrain system, neurons are grown on silicon chips. These neurons act like the wires in the system, connecting different components. The major advantage of this approach is that the neurons can change their shape, grow, replicate, or die in response to the demands of the system.

Dishbrain could learn to play the arcade game Pong faster than conventional AI systems. The developers of Dishbrain said: “Nothing like this has ever existed before … It is an entirely new mode of being. A fusion of silicon and neuron.”

Cortical Labs believes its hybrid chips could be the key to the kinds of complex reasoning that today’s computers and AI cannot produce. Another start-up making computers from lab-grown neurons, Koniku, believes their technology will revolutionise several industries including agriculture, healthcare, military technology and airport security. Other types of organic computers are also in the early stages of development.

Ethics issues arise (Note: Links have been removed),

… this raises questions about donor consent. Do people who provide tissue samples for technology research and development know that it might be used to make neural computers? Do they need to know this for their consent to be valid?

People will no doubt be much more willing to donate skin cells for research than their brain tissue. One of the barriers to brain donation is that the brain is seen as linked to your identity. But in a world where we can grow mini-brains from virtually any cell type, does it make sense to draw this type of distinction?

… Consider the scandal regarding Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cells were used extensively in medical and commercial research without her knowledge and consent.

Henrietta’s cells are still used in applications which generate huge amounts of revenue for pharmaceutical companies (including recently to develop COVID vaccines. The Lacks family still has not received any compensation. If a donor’s neurons end up being used in products like the imaginary Nyooro, should they be entitled to some of the profit made from those products?

Another key ethical consideration for neural computers is whether they could develop some form of consciousness and experience pain. Would neural computers be more likely to have experiences than silicon-based ones? …

This May 24, 2022 essay is fascinating and, if you have the time, I encourage you to read it all.

If you’re curious, you can find out about Cortical Labs here, more about Dishbrain in a February 22, 2022 article by Brian Patrick Green for iai (Institute for Art and Ideas) news, and more about Koniku in a May 31, 2018 posting about ‘wetware’ by Alissa Greenberg on Medium.

As for Henrietta Lacks, there’s this from my May 13, 2016 posting,

*HeLa cells are named for Henrietta Lacks who unknowingly donated her immortal cell line to medical research. You can find more about the story on the Oprah Winfrey website, which features an excerpt from the Rebecca Skloot book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”’ …

I checked; the excerpt is still on the Oprah Winfrey site.

h/t May 24, 2022 Nanowerk Spotlight article

Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy (long read)

This story got me to thinking about what happens when any kind of implant company (pacemaker, deep brain stimulator, etc.) goes bankrupt or is acquired by another company with a different business model.

As I worked on this piece, more issues were raised and the scope expanded to include prosthetics along with implants while the focus narrowed to neuro as in, neural implants and neuroprosthetics. At the same time, I found salient examples for this posting in other medical advances such as gene editing.

In sum, all references to implants and prosthetics are to neural devices and some issues are illustrated with salient examples from other medical advances (specifically, gene editing).

Definitions (for those who find them useful)

The US Food and Drug Administration defines implants and prosthetics,

Medical implants are devices or tissues that are placed inside or on the surface of the body. Many implants are prosthetics, intended to replace missing body parts. Other implants deliver medication, monitor body functions, or provide support to organs and tissues.

As for what constitutes a neural implant/neuroprosthetic, there’s this from Emily Waltz’s January 20, 2020 article (How Do Neural Implants Work? Neural implants are used for deep brain stimulation, vagus nerve stimulation, and mind-controlled prostheses) for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Spectrum magazine,

A neural implant, then, is a device—typically an electrode of some kind—that’s inserted into the body, comes into contact with tissues that contain neurons, and interacts with those neurons in some way.

Now, let’s start with the recent near bankruptcy of a retinal implant company.

The company goes bust (more or less)

From a February 25, 2022 Science Friday (a National Public Radio program) posting/audio file, Note: Links have been removed,

Barbara Campbell was walking through a New York City subway station during rush hour when her world abruptly went dark. For four years, Campbell had been using a high-tech implant in her left eye that gave her a crude kind of bionic vision, partially compensating for the genetic disease that had rendered her completely blind in her 30s. “I remember exactly where I was: I was switching from the 6 train to the F train,” Campbell tells IEEE Spectrum. “I was about to go down the stairs, and all of a sudden I heard a little ‘beep, beep, beep’ sound.’”

It wasn’t her phone battery running out. It was her Argus II retinal implant system powering down. The patches of light and dark that she’d been able to see with the implant’s help vanished.

Terry Byland is the only person to have received this kind of implant in both eyes. He got the first-generation Argus I implant, made by the company Second Sight Medical Products, in his right eye in 2004, and the subsequent Argus II implant in his left 11 years later. He helped the company test the technology, spoke to the press movingly about his experiences, and even met Stevie Wonder at a conference. “[I] went from being just a person that was doing the testing to being a spokesman,” he remembers.

Yet in 2020, Byland had to find out secondhand that the company had abandoned the technology and was on the verge of going bankrupt. While his two-implant system is still working, he doesn’t know how long that will be the case. “As long as nothing goes wrong, I’m fine,” he says. “But if something does go wrong with it, well, I’m screwed. Because there’s no way of getting it fixed.”

Science Friday and the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Spectrum magazine collaborated to produce this story. You’ll find the audio files and the transcript of interviews with the authors and one of the implant patients in this February 25, 2022 Science Friday (a National Public Radio program) posting.

Here’s more from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article by Eliza Strickland and Mark Harris,

Ross Doerr, another Second Sight patient, doesn’t mince words: “It is fantastic technology and a lousy company,” he says. He received an implant in one eye in 2019 and remembers seeing the shining lights of Christmas trees that holiday season. He was thrilled to learn in early 2020 that he was eligible for software upgrades that could further improve his vision. Yet in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he heard troubling rumors about the company and called his Second Sight vision-rehab therapist. “She said, ‘Well, funny you should call. We all just got laid off,’ ” he remembers. She said, ‘By the way, you’re not getting your upgrades.’ ”

These three patients, and more than 350 other blind people around the world with Second Sight’s implants in their eyes, find themselves in a world in which the technology that transformed their lives is just another obsolete gadget. One technical hiccup, one broken wire, and they lose their artificial vision, possibly forever. To add injury to insult: A defunct Argus system in the eye could cause medical complications or interfere with procedures such as MRI scans, and it could be painful or expensive to remove.

The writers included some information about what happened to the business, from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article, Note: Links have been removed,

After Second Sight discontinued its retinal implant in 2019 and nearly went out of business in 2020, a public offering in June 2021 raised US $57.5 million at $5 per share. The company promised to focus on its ongoing clinical trial of a brain implant, called Orion, that also provides artificial vision. But its stock price plunged to around $1.50, and in February 2022, just before this article was published, the company announced a proposed merger with an early-stage biopharmaceutical company called Nano Precision Medical (NPM). None of Second Sight’s executives will be on the leadership team of the new company, which will focus on developing NPM’s novel implant for drug delivery.The company’s current leadership declined to be interviewed for this article but did provide an emailed statement prior to the merger announcement. It said, in part: “We are a recognized global leader in neuromodulation devices for blindness and are committed to developing new technologies to treat the broadest population of sight-impaired individuals.”

It’s unclear what Second Sight’s proposed merger means for Argus patients. The day after the merger was announced, Adam Mendelsohn, CEO of Nano Precision Medical, told Spectrum that he doesn’t yet know what contractual obligations the combined company will have to Argus and Orion patients. But, he says, NPM will try to do what’s “right from an ethical perspective.” The past, he added in an email, is “simply not relevant to the new future.”

There may be some alternatives, from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article (Note: Links have been removed),

Second Sight may have given up on its retinal implant, but other companies still see a need—and a market—for bionic vision without brain surgery. Paris-based Pixium Vision is conducting European and U.S. feasibility trials to see if its Prima system can help patients with age-related macular degeneration, a much more common condition than retinitis pigmentosa.

Daniel Palanker, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University who licensed his technology to Pixium, says the Prima implant is smaller, simpler, and cheaper than the Argus II. But he argues that Prima’s superior image resolution has the potential to make Pixium Vision a success. “If you provide excellent vision, there will be lots of patients,” he tells Spectrum. “If you provide crappy vision, there will be very few.”

Some clinicians involved in the Argus II work are trying to salvage what they can from the technology. Gislin Dagnelie, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has set up a network of clinicians who are still working with Argus II patients. The researchers are experimenting with a thermal camera to help users see faces, a stereo camera to filter out the background, and AI-powered object recognition. These upgrades are unlikely to result in commercial hardware today but could help future vision prostheses.

The writers have carefully balanced this piece so it is not an outright condemnation of the companies (Second Sight and Nano Precision), from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article,

Failure is an inevitable part of innovation. The Argus II was an innovative technology, and progress made by Second Sight may pave the way for other companies that are developing bionic vision systems. But for people considering such an implant in the future, the cautionary tale of Argus patients left in the lurch may make a tough decision even tougher. Should they take a chance on a novel technology? If they do get an implant and find that it helps them navigate the world, should they allow themselves to depend upon it?

Abandoning the Argus II technology—and the people who use it—might have made short-term financial sense for Second Sight, but it’s a decision that could come back to bite the merged company if it does decide to commercialize a brain implant, believes Doerr.

For anyone curious about retinal implant technology (specifically the Argus II), I have a description in a June 30, 2015 posting.

Speculations and hopes for neuroprosthetics

The field of neuroprosthetics is very active. Dr Arthur Saniotis and Prof Maciej Henneberg have written an article where they speculate about the possibilities of a neuroprosthetic that may one day merge with neurons in a February 21, 2022 Nanowerk Spotlight article,

For over a generation several types of medical neuroprosthetics have been developed, which have improved the lives of thousands of individuals. For instance, cochlear implants have restored functional hearing in individuals with severe hearing impairment.

Further advances in motor neuroprosthetics are attempting to restore motor functions in tetraplegic, limb loss and brain stem stroke paralysis subjects.

Currently, scientists are working on various kinds of brain/machine interfaces [BMI] in order to restore movement and partial sensory function. One such device is the ‘Ipsihand’ that enables movement of a paralyzed hand. The device works by detecting the recipient’s intention in the form of electrical signals, thereby triggering hand movement.

Another recent development is the 12 month BMI gait neurohabilitation program that uses a visual-tactile feedback system in combination with a physical exoskeleton and EEG operated AI actuators while walking. This program has been tried on eight patients with reported improvements in lower limb movement and somatic sensation.

Surgically placed electrode implants have also reduced tremor symptoms in individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

Although neuroprosthetics have provided various benefits they do have their problems. Firstly, electrode implants to the brain are prone to degradation, necessitating new implants after a few years. Secondly, as in any kind of surgery, implanted electrodes can cause post-operative infection and glial scarring. Furthermore, one study showed that the neurobiological efficacy of an implant is dependent on the rate of speed of its insertion.

But what if humans designed a neuroprosthetic, which could bypass the medical glitches of invasive neuroprosthetics? However, instead of connecting devices to neural networks, this neuroprosthetic would directly merge with neurons – a novel step. Such a neuroprosthetic could radically optimize treatments for neurodegenerative disorders and brain injuries, and possibly cognitive enhancement [emphasis mine].

A team of three international scientists has recently designed a nanobased neuroprosthetic, which was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience (“Integration of Nanobots Into Neural Circuits As a Future Therapy for Treating Neurodegenerative Disorders“). [open access paper published in 2018]

An interesting feature of their nanobot neuroprosthetic is that it has been inspired from nature by way of endomyccorhizae – a type of plant/fungus symbiosis, which is over four hundred million years old. During endomyccorhizae, fungi use numerous threadlike projections called mycelium that penetrate plant roots, forming colossal underground networks with nearby root systems. During this process fungi take up vital nutrients while protecting plant roots from infections – a win-win relationship. Consequently, the nano-neuroprosthetic has been named ‘endomyccorhizae ligand interface’, or ‘ELI’ for short.

The Spotlight article goes on to describe how these nanobots might function. As for the possibility of cognitive enhancement, I wonder if that might come to be described as a form of ‘artificial intelligence’.

(Dr Arthur Saniotis and Prof Maciej Henneberg are both from the Department of Anthropology, Ludwik Hirszfeld Institute of Immunology and Experimental Therapy, Polish Academy of Sciences; and Biological Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy Research Unit, Adelaide Medical School, University of Adelaide. Abdul-Rahman Sawalma who’s listed as an author on the 2018 paper is from the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative, Al-Quds University, Beit Hanina, Palestine.)

Saniotis and Henneberg’s Spotlight article presents an optimistic view of neuroprosthetics. It seems telling that they cite cochlear implants as a success story when it is viewed by many as ethically fraught (see the Cochlear implant Wikipedia entry; scroll down to ‘Criticism and controversy’).

Ethics and your implants

This is from an April 6, 2015 article by Luc Henry on technologist.eu,

Technologist: What are the potential consequences of accepting the “augmented human” in society?

Gregor Wolbring: There are many that we might not even envision now. But let me focus on failure and obsolescence [emphasis mine], two issues that are rarely discussed. What happens when the mechanisms fails in the middle of an action? Failure has hazardous consequences, but obsolescence has psychological ones. …. The constant surgical inter­vention needed to update the hardware may not be feasible. A person might feel obsolete if she cohabits with others using a newer version.

T. Are researchers working on prosthetics sometimes disconnected from reality?

G. W. Students engaged in the development of prosthetics have to learn how to think in societal terms and develop a broader perspective. Our education system provides them with a fascination for clever solutions to technological challenges but not with tools aiming at understanding the consequences, such as whether their product might increase or decrease social justice.

Wolbring is a professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (profile page) who writes on social issues to do with human enhancement/ augmentation. As well,

Some of his areas of engagement are: ability studies including governance of ability expectations, disability studies, governance of emerging and existing sciences and technologies (e.g. nanoscale science and technology, molecular manufacturing, aging, longevity and immortality, cognitive sciences, neuromorphic engineering, genetics, synthetic biology, robotics, artificial intelligence, automatization, brain machine interfaces, sensors), impact of science and technology on marginalized populations, especially people with disabilities he governance of bodily enhancement, sustainability issues, EcoHealth, resilience, ethics issues, health policy issues, human rights and sport.

He also maintains his own website here.

Not just startups

I’d classify Second Sight as a tech startup company and they have a high rate of failure, which may not have been clear to the patients who had the implants. Clinical trials can present problems too as this excerpt from my September 17, 2020 posting notes,

This October 31, 2017 article by Emily Underwood for Science was revelatory,

“In 2003, neurologist Helen Mayberg of Emory University in Atlanta began to test a bold, experimental treatment for people with severe depression, which involved implanting metal electrodes deep in the brain in a region called area 25 [emphases mine]. The initial data were promising; eventually, they convinced a device company, St. Jude Medical in Saint Paul, to sponsor a 200-person clinical trial dubbed BROADEN.

This month [October 2017], however, Lancet Psychiatry reported the first published data on the trial’s failure. The study stopped recruiting participants in 2012, after a 6-month study in 90 people failed to show statistically significant improvements between those receiving active stimulation and a control group, in which the device was implanted but switched off.

… a tricky dilemma for companies and research teams involved in deep brain stimulation (DBS) research: If trial participants want to keep their implants [emphases mine], who will take responsibility—and pay—for their ongoing care? And participants in last week’s meeting said it underscores the need for the growing corps of DBS researchers to think long-term about their planned studies.”

Symbiosis can be another consequence, as mentioned in my September 17, 2020 posting,

From a July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew for Nature Outlook: The brain,

“It becomes part of you,” Patient 6 said, describing the technology that enabled her, after 45 years of severe epilepsy, to halt her disabling seizures. Electrodes had been implanted on the surface of her brain that would send a signal to a hand-held device when they detected signs of impending epileptic activity. On hearing a warning from the device, Patient 6 knew to take a dose of medication to halt the coming seizure.

“You grow gradually into it and get used to it, so it then becomes a part of every day,” she told Frederic Gilbert, an ethicist who studies brain–computer interfaces (BCIs) at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia. “It became me,” she said. [emphasis mine]

Symbiosis is a term, borrowed from ecology, that means an intimate co-existence of two species for mutual advantage. As technologists work towards directly connecting the human brain to computers, it is increasingly being used to describe humans’ potential relationship with artificial intelligence. [emphasis mine]

It’s complicated

For a lot of people these devices are or could be life-changing. At the same time, there are a number of different issues related to implants/prosthetics; the following is not an exhaustive list. As Wolbring notes, issues that we can’t begin to imagine now are likely to emerge as these medical advances become more ubiquitous.

Ability/disability?

Assistive technologies are almost always portrayed as helpful. For example, a cochlear implant gives people without hearing the ability to hear. The assumption is that this is always a good thing—unless you’re a deaf person who wants to define the problem a little differently. Who gets to decide what is good and ‘normal’ and what is desirable?

While the cochlear implant is the most extreme example I can think of, there are variations of these questions throughout the ‘disability’ communities.

Also, as Wolbring notes in his interview with the Technologist.eu, the education system tends to favour technological solutions which don’t take social issues into account. Wolbring cites social justice issues when he mentions failure and obsolescence.

Technical failures and obsolescence

The story, excerpted earlier in this posting, opened with a striking example of a technical failure at an awkward moment; a blind woman depending on her retinal implant loses all sight as she maneuvers through a subway station in New York City.

Aside from being an awful way to find out the company supplying and supporting your implant is in serious financial trouble and can’t offer assistance or repair, the failure offers a preview of what could happen as implants and prosthetics become more commonly used.

Keeping up/fomo (fear of missing out)/obsolescence

It used to be called ‘keeping up with the Joneses, it’s the practice of comparing yourself and your worldly goods to someone else(‘s) and then trying to equal what they have or do better. Usually, people want to have more and better than the mythical Joneses.

These days, the phenomenon (which has been expanded to include social networking) is better known as ‘fomo’ or fear of missing out (see the Fear of missing out Wikipedia entry).

Whatever you want to call it, humanity’s competitive nature can be seen where technology is concerned. When I worked in technology companies, I noticed that hardware and software were sometimes purchased for features that were effectively useless to us. But, not upgrading to a newer version was unthinkable.

Call it fomo or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, it’s a powerful force and when people (and even companies) miss out or can’t keep up, it can lead to a sense of inferiority in the same way that having an obsolete implant or prosthetic could.

Social consequences

Could there be a neural implant/neuroprosthetic divide? There is already a digital divide (from its Wikipedia entry),

The digital divide is a gap between those who have access to new technology and those who do not … people without access to the Internet and other ICTs [information and communication technologies] are at a socio-economic disadvantage because they are unable or less able to find and apply for jobs, shop and sell online, participate democratically, or research and learn.

After reading Wolbring’s comments, it’s not hard to imagine a neural implant/neuroprosthetic divide with its attendant psychological and social consequences.

What kind of human am I?

There are other issues as noted in my September 17, 2020 posting. I’ve already mentioned ‘patient 6’, the woman who developed a symbiotic relationship with her brain/computer interface. This is how the relationship ended,

… He [Frederic Gilbert, ethicist] is now preparing a follow-up report on Patient 6. The company that implanted the device in her brain to help free her from seizures went bankrupt. The device had to be removed.

… Patient 6 cried as she told Gilbert about losing the device. … “I lost myself,” she said.

“It was more than a device,” Gilbert says. “The company owned the existence of this new person.”

Above human

The possibility that implants will not merely restore or endow someone with ‘standard’ sight or hearing or motion or … but will augment or improve on nature was broached in this May 2, 2013 posting, More than human—a bionic ear that extends hearing beyond the usual frequencies and is one of many in the ‘Human Enhancement’ category on this blog.

More recently, Hugh Herr, an Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), leader of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT’s Media Lab, a double amputee, and prosthetic enthusiast, starred in the recent (February 23, 2022) broadcast of ‘Augmented‘ on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) science programme, Nova.

I found ‘Augmented’ a little offputting as it gave every indication of being an advertisement for Herr’s work in the form of a hero’s journey. I was not able to watch more than 10 mins. This preview gives you a pretty good idea of what it was like although the part in ‘Augmented, where he says he’d like to be a cyborg hasn’t been included,

At a guess, there were a few talking heads (taking up from 10%-20% of the running time) who provided some cautionary words to counterbalance the enthusiasm in the rest of the programme. It’s a standard approach designed to give the impression that both sides of a question are being recognized. The cautionary material is usually inserted past the 1/2 way mark while leaving several minutes at the end for returning to the more optimistic material.

In a February 2, 2010 posting I have excerpts from an article featuring quotes from Herr that I still find startling,

Written by Paul Hochman for Fast Company, Bionic Legs, iLimbs, and Other Super-Human Prostheses [ETA March 23, 2022: an updated version of the article is now on Genius.com] delves further into the world where people may be willing to trade a healthy limb for a prosthetic. From the article,

There are many advantages to having your leg amputated.

Pedicure costs drop 50% overnight. A pair of socks lasts twice as long. But Hugh Herr, the director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, goes a step further. “It’s actually unfair,” Herr says about amputees’ advantages over the able-bodied. “As tech advancements in prosthetics come along, amputees can exploit those improvements. They can get upgrades. A person with a natural body can’t.”

Herr is not the only one who favours prosthetics (also from the Hochman article),

This influx of R&D cash, combined with breakthroughs in materials science and processor speed, has had a striking visual and social result: an emblem of hurt and loss has become a paradigm of the sleek, modern, and powerful. Which is why Michael Bailey, a 24-year-old student in Duluth, Georgia, is looking forward to the day when he can amputate the last two fingers on his left hand.

“I don’t think I would have said this if it had never happened,” says Bailey, referring to the accident that tore off his pinkie, ring, and middle fingers. “But I told Touch Bionics I’d cut the rest of my hand off if I could make all five of my fingers robotic.”

But Bailey is most surprised by his own reaction. “When I’m wearing it, I do feel different: I feel stronger. As weird as that sounds, having a piece of machinery incorporated into your body, as a part of you, well, it makes you feel above human.[emphasis mine] It’s a very powerful thing.”

My September 17, 2020 posting touches on more ethical and social issues including some of those surrounding consumer neurotechnologies or brain-computer interfaces (BCI). Unfortunately, I don’t have space for these issues here.

As for Paul Hochman’s article, Bionic Legs, iLimbs, and Other Super-Human Prostheses, now on Genius.com, it has been updated.

Money makes the world go around

Money and business practices have been indirectly referenced (for the most part) up to now in this posting. The February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article and Hochman’s article, Bionic Legs, iLimbs, and Other Super-Human Prostheses, cover two aspects of the money angle.

In the IEEE Spectrum article, a tech start-up company, Second Sight, ran into financial trouble and is acquired by a company that has no plans to develop Second Sight’s core technology. The people implanted with the Argus II technology have been stranded as were ‘patient 6’ and others participating in the clinical trial described in the July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew for Nature Outlook: The brain mentioned earlier in this posting.

I don’t know anything about the business bankruptcy mentioned in the Drew article but one of the business problems described in the IEEE Spectrum article suggests that Second Sight was founded before answering a basic question, “What is the market size for this product?”

On 18 July 2019, Second Sight sent Argus patients a letter saying it would be phasing out the retinal implant technology to clear the way for the development of its next-generation brain implant for blindness, Orion, which had begun a clinical trial with six patients the previous year. …

“The leadership at the time didn’t believe they could make [the Argus retinal implant] part of the business profitable,” Greenberg [Robert Greenberg, Second Sight co-founder] says. “I understood the decision, because I think the size of the market turned out to be smaller than we had thought.”

….

The question of whether a medical procedure or medicine can be profitable (or should the question be sufficiently profitable?) was referenced in my April 26, 2019 posting in the context of gene editing and personalized medicine

Edward Abrahams, president of the Personalized Medicine Coalition (US-based), advocates for personalized medicine while noting in passing, market forces as represented by Goldman Sachs in his May 23, 2018 piece for statnews.com (Note: A link has been removed),

Goldman Sachs, for example, issued a report titled “The Genome Revolution.” It argues that while “genome medicine” offers “tremendous value for patients and society,” curing patients may not be “a sustainable business model.” [emphasis mine] The analysis underlines that the health system is not set up to reap the benefits of new scientific discoveries and technologies. Just as we are on the precipice of an era in which gene therapies, gene-editing, and immunotherapies promise to address the root causes of disease, Goldman Sachs says that these therapies have a “very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies.”

The ‘Glybera’ story in my July 4, 2019 posting (scroll down about 40% of the way) highlights the issue with “recurring revenue versus chronic therapies,”

Kelly Crowe in a November 17, 2018 article for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news writes about Glybera,

It is one of this country’s great scientific achievements.

“The first drug ever approved that can fix a faulty gene.

It’s called Glybera, and it can treat a painful and potentially deadly genetic disorder with a single dose — a genuine made-in-Canada medical breakthrough.

But most Canadians have never heard of it.

Here’s my summary (from the July 4, 2019 posting),

It cost $1M for a single treatment and that single treatment is good for at least 10 years.

Pharmaceutical companies make their money from repeated use of their medicaments and Glybera required only one treatment so the company priced it according to how much they would have gotten for repeated use, $100,000 per year over a 10 year period. The company was not able to persuade governments and/or individuals to pay the cost

In the end, 31 people got the treatment, most of them received it for free through clinical trials.

For rich people only?

Megan Devlin’s March 8, 2022 article for the Daily Hive announces a major research investment into medical research (Note: A link has been removed),

Vancouver [Canada] billionaire Chip Wilson revealed Tuesday [March 8, 2022] that he has a rare genetic condition that causes his muscles to waste away, and announced he’s spending $100 million on research to find a cure.

His condition is called facio-scapulo-humeral muscular dystrophy, or FSHD for short. It progresses rapidly in some people and more slowly in others, but is characterized by progressive muscle weakness starting the the face, the neck, shoulders, and later the lower body.

“I’m out for survival of my own life,” Wilson said.

“I also have the resources to do something about this which affects so many people in the world.”

Wilson hopes the $100 million will produce a cure or muscle-regenerating treatment by 2027.

“This could be one of the biggest discoveries of all time, for humankind,” Wilson said. “Most people lose muscle, they fall, and they die. If we can keep muscle as we age this can be a longevity drug like we’ve never seen before.”

According to rarediseases.org, FSHD affects between four and 10 people out of every 100,000 [emphasis mine], Right now, therapies are limited to exercise and pain management. There is no way to stall or reverse the disease’s course.

Wilson is best known for founding athleisure clothing company Lululemon. He also owns the most expensive home in British Columbia, a $73 million mansion in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood.

Let’s see what the numbers add up to,

4 – 10 people out of 100,000

40 – 100 people out of 1M

1200 – 3,000 people out of 30M (let’s say this is Canada’s population)\

12,000 – 30,000 people out of 300M (let’s say this is the US’s population)

42,000 – 105,000 out of 1.115B (let’s say this is China’s population)

The rough total comes to 55,200 to 138,000 people between three countries with a combined population total of 1.445B. Given how business currently operates, it seems unlikely that any company will want to offer Wilson’s hoped for medical therapy although he and possibly others may benefit from a clinical trial.

Should profit or wealth be considerations?

The stories about the patients with the implants and the patients who need Glybera are heartbreaking and point to a question not often asked when medical therapies and medications are developed. Is the profit model the best choice and, if so, how much profit?

I have no answer to that question but I wish it was asked by medical researchers and policy makers.

As for wealthy people dictating the direction for medical research, I don’t have answers there either. I hope the research will yield applications and/or valuable information for more than Wilson’s disease.

It’s his money after all

Wilson calls his new venture, SolveFSHD. It doesn’t seem to be affiliated with any university or biomedical science organization and it’s not clear how the money will be awarded (no programmes, no application procedure, no panel of experts). There are three people on the team, Eva R. Chin, scientist and executive director, Chip Wilson, SolveFSHD founder/funder, and FSHD patient, and Neil Camarta, engineer, executive (fossil fuels and clean energy), and FSHD patient. There’s also a Twitter feed (presumably for the latest updates): https://twitter.com/SOLVEFSHD.

Perhaps unrelated but intriguing is news about a proposed new building in Kenneth Chan’s March 31, 2022 article for the Daily Hive,

Low Tide Properties, the real estate arm of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson [emphasis mine], has submitted a new development permit application to build a 148-ft-tall, eight-storey, mixed-use commercial building in the False Creek Flats of Vancouver.

The proposal, designed by local architectural firm Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership, calls for 236,000 sq ft of total floor area, including 105,000 sq ft of general office space, 102,000 sq ft of laboratory space [emphasis mine], and 5,000 sq ft of ground-level retail space. An outdoor amenity space for building workers will be provided on the rooftop.

[next door] The 2001-built, five-storey building at 1618 Station Street immediately to the west of the development site is also owned by Low Tide Properties [emphasis mine]. The Ferguson, the name of the existing building, contains about 79,000 sq ft of total floor area, including 47,000 sq ft of laboratory space and 32,000 sq ft of general office space. Biotechnology company Stemcell technologies [STEMCELL] Technologies] is the anchor tenant [emphasis mine].

I wonder if this proposed new building will house SolveFSHD and perhaps other FSHD-focused enterprises. The proximity of STEMCELL Technologies could be quite convenient. In any event, $100M will buy a lot (pun intended).

The end

Issues I’ve described here in the context of neural implants/neuroprosthetics and cutting edge medical advances are standard problems not specific to these technologies/treatments:

  • What happens when the technology fails (hopefully not at a critical moment)?
  • What happens when your supplier goes out of business or discontinues the products you purchase from them?
  • How much does it cost?
  • Who can afford the treatment/product? Will it only be for rich people?
  • Will this technology/procedure/etc. exacerbate or create new social tensions between social classes, cultural groups, religious groups, races, etc.?

Of course, having your neural implant fail suddenly in the middle of a New York City subway station seems a substantively different experience than having your car break down on the road.

There are, of course, there are the issues we can’t yet envision (as Wolbring notes) and there are issues such as symbiotic relationships with our implants and/or feeling that you are “above human.” Whether symbiosis and ‘implant/prosthetic superiority’ will affect more than a small number of people or become major issues is still to be determined.

There’s a lot to be optimistic about where new medical research and advances are concerned but I would like to see more thoughtful coverage in the media (e.g., news programmes and documentaries like ‘Augmented’) and more thoughtful comments from medical researchers.

Of course, the biggest issue I’ve raised here is about the current business models for health care products where profit is valued over people’s health and well-being. it’s a big question and I don’t see any definitive answers but the question put me in mind of this quote (from a September 22, 2020 obituary for US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irene Monroe for Curve),

Ginsburg’s advocacy for justice was unwavering and showed it, especially with each oral dissent. In another oral dissent, Ginsburg quoted a familiar Martin Luther King Jr. line, adding her coda:” ‘The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’” but only “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” …

Martin Luther King Jr. popularized and paraphrased the quote (from a January 18, 2018 article by Mychal Denzel Smith for Huffington Post),

His use of the quote is best understood by considering his source material. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is King’s clever paraphrasing of a portion of a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. Born in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1810, Parker studied at Harvard Divinity School and eventually became an influential transcendentalist and minister in the Unitarian church. In that sermon, Parker said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

I choose to keep faith that people will get the healthcare products they need and that all of us need to keep working at making access more fair.

BrainGate demonstrates a high-bandwidth wireless brain-computer interface (BCI)

I wrote about some brain computer interface (BCI) work out of Stanford University (California, US), in a Sept. 17, 2020 posting (Turning brain-controlled wireless electronic prostheses into reality plus some ethical points), which may have contributed to what is now the first demonstration of a wireless brain-computer interface for people with tetraplegia (also known as quadriplegia).

From an April 1, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily,

In an important step toward a fully implantable intracortical brain-computer interface system, BrainGate researchers demonstrated human use of a wireless transmitter capable of delivering high-bandwidth neural signals.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are an emerging assistive technology, enabling people with paralysis to type on computer screens or manipulate robotic prostheses just by thinking about moving their own bodies. For years, investigational BCIs used in clinical trials have required cables to connect the sensing array in the brain to computers that decode the signals and use them to drive external devices.

Now, for the first time, BrainGate clinical trial participants with tetraplegia have demonstrated use of an intracortical wireless BCI with an external wireless transmitter. The system is capable of transmitting brain signals at single-neuron resolution and in full broadband fidelity without physically tethering the user to a decoding system. The traditional cables are replaced by a small transmitter about 2 inches in its largest dimension and weighing a little over 1.5 ounces. The unit sits on top of a user’s head and connects to an electrode array within the brain’s motor cortex using the same port used by wired systems.

For a study published in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, two clinical trial participants with paralysis used the BrainGate system with a wireless transmitter to point, click and type on a standard tablet computer. The study showed that the wireless system transmitted signals with virtually the same fidelity as wired systems, and participants achieved similar point-and-click accuracy and typing speeds.

A March 31, 2021 Brown University news release (also on EurekAlert but published April 1, 2021), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“We’ve demonstrated that this wireless system is functionally equivalent to the wired systems that have been the gold standard in BCI performance for years,” said John Simeral, an assistant professor of engineering (research) at Brown University, a member of the BrainGate research consortium and the study’s lead author. “The signals are recorded and transmitted with appropriately similar fidelity, which means we can use the same decoding algorithms we used with wired equipment. The only difference is that people no longer need to be physically tethered to our equipment, which opens up new possibilities in terms of how the system can be used.”

The researchers say the study represents an early but important step toward a major objective in BCI research: a fully implantable intracortical system that aids in restoring independence for people who have lost the ability to move. While wireless devices with lower bandwidth have been reported previously, this is the first device to transmit the full spectrum of signals recorded by an intracortical sensor. That high-broadband wireless signal enables clinical research and basic human neuroscience that is much more difficult to perform with wired BCIs.

The new study demonstrated some of those new possibilities. The trial participants — a 35-year-old man and a 63-year-old man, both paralyzed by spinal cord injuries — were able to use the system in their homes, as opposed to the lab setting where most BCI research takes place. Unencumbered by cables, the participants were able to use the BCI continuously for up to 24 hours, giving the researchers long-duration data including while participants slept.

“We want to understand how neural signals evolve over time,” said Leigh Hochberg, an engineering professor at Brown, a researcher at Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science and leader of the BrainGate clinical trial. “With this system, we’re able to look at brain activity, at home, over long periods in a way that was nearly impossible before. This will help us to design decoding algorithms that provide for the seamless, intuitive, reliable restoration of communication and mobility for people with paralysis.”

The device used in the study was first developed at Brown in the lab of Arto Nurmikko, a professor in Brown’s School of Engineering. Dubbed the Brown Wireless Device (BWD), it was designed to transmit high-fidelity signals while drawing minimal power. In the current study, two devices used together recorded neural signals at 48 megabits per second from 200 electrodes with a battery life of over 36 hours.

While the BWD has been used successfully for several years in basic neuroscience research, additional testing and regulatory permission were required prior to using the system in the BrainGate trial. Nurmikko says the step to human use marks a key moment in the development of BCI technology.

“I am privileged to be part of a team pushing the frontiers of brain-machine interfaces for human use,” Nurmikko said. “Importantly, the wireless technology described in our paper has helped us to gain crucial insight for the road ahead in pursuit of next generation of neurotechnologies, such as fully implanted high-density wireless electronic interfaces for the brain.”

The new study marks another significant advance by researchers with the BrainGate consortium, an interdisciplinary group of researchers from Brown, Stanford and Case Western Reserve universities, as well as the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital. In 2012, the team published landmark research in which clinical trial participants were able, for the first time, to operate multidimensional robotic prosthetics using a BCI. That work has been followed by a steady stream of refinements to the system, as well as new clinical breakthroughs that have enabled people to type on computers, use tablet apps and even move their own paralyzed limbs.

“The evolution of intracortical BCIs from requiring a wire cable to instead using a miniature wireless transmitter is a major step toward functional use of fully implanted, high-performance neural interfaces,” said study co-author Sharlene Flesher, who was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and is now a hardware engineer at Apple. “As the field heads toward reducing transmitted bandwidth while preserving the accuracy of assistive device control, this study may be one of few that captures the full breadth of cortical signals for extended periods of time, including during practical BCI use.”

The new wireless technology is already paying dividends in unexpected ways, the researchers say. Because participants are able to use the wireless device in their homes without a technician on hand to maintain the wired connection, the BrainGate team has been able to continue their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In March 2020, it became clear that we would not be able to visit our research participants’ homes,” said Hochberg, who is also a critical care neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and director of the V.A. Rehabilitation Research and Development Center for Neurorestoration and Neurotechnology. “But by training caregivers how to establish the wireless connection, a trial participant was able to use the BCI without members of our team physically being there. So not only were we able to continue our research, this technology allowed us to continue with the full bandwidth and fidelity that we had before.”

Simeral noted that, “Multiple companies have wonderfully entered the BCI field, and some have already demonstrated human use of low-bandwidth wireless systems, including some that are fully implanted. In this report, we’re excited to have used a high-bandwidth wireless system that advances the scientific and clinical capabilities for future systems.”

Brown has a licensing agreement with Blackrock Microsystems to make the device available to neuroscience researchers around the world. The BrainGate team plans to continue to use the device in ongoing clinical trials.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Home Use of a Percutaneous Wireless Intracortical Brain-Computer Interface by Individuals With Tetraplegia by John D Simeral, Thomas Hosman, Jad Saab, Sharlene N Flesher, Marco Vilela, Brian Franco, Jessica Kelemen, David M Brandman, John G Ciancibello, Paymon G Rezaii, Emad N. Eskandar, David M Rosler, Krishna V Shenoy, Jaimie M. Henderson, Arto V Nurmikko, Leigh R. Hochberg. IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, 2021; 1 DOI: 10.1109/TBME.2021.3069119 Date of Publication: 30 March 2021

This paper is open access.

If you don’t happen to be familiar with the IEEE, it’s the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. BrainGate can be found here, and Blackrock Microsystems can be found here.

The first story here to feature BrainGate was in a May 17, 2012 posting. (Unfortunately, the video featuring a participant picking up a cup of coffee is no longer embedded in the post.) There’s also an October 31, 2016 posting and an April 24, 2017 posting, both of which mention BrainGate. As for my Sept. 17, 2020 posting (Turning brain-controlled wireless electronic prostheses into reality plus some ethical points), you may want to look at those ethical points.

Turning brain-controlled wireless electronic prostheses into reality plus some ethical points

Researchers at Stanford University (California, US) believe they have a solution for a problem with neuroprosthetics (Note: I have included brief comments about neuroprosthetics and possible ethical issues at the end of this posting) according an August 5, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,

The current generation of neural implants record enormous amounts of neural activity, then transmit these brain signals through wires to a computer. But, so far, when researchers have tried to create wireless brain-computer interfaces to do this, it took so much power to transmit the data that the implants generated too much heat to be safe for the patient. A new study suggests how to solve his problem — and thus cut the wires.

Caption: Photo of a current neural implant, that uses wires to transmit information and receive power. New research suggests how to one day cut the wires. Credit: Sergey Stavisky

An August 3, 2020 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert but published August 4, 2020) by Tom Abate, which originated the news item, details the problem and the proposed solution,

Stanford researchers have been working for years to advance a technology that could one day help people with paralysis regain use of their limbs, and enable amputees to use their thoughts to control prostheses and interact with computers.

The team has been focusing on improving a brain-computer interface, a device implanted beneath the skull on the surface of a patient’s brain. This implant connects the human nervous system to an electronic device that might, for instance, help restore some motor control to a person with a spinal cord injury, or someone with a neurological condition like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The current generation of these devices record enormous amounts of neural activity, then transmit these brain signals through wires to a computer. But when researchers have tried to create wireless brain-computer interfaces to do this, it took so much power to transmit the data that the devices would generate too much heat to be safe for the patient.

Now, a team led by electrical engineers and neuroscientists Krishna Shenoy, PhD, and Boris Murmann, PhD, and neurosurgeon and neuroscientist Jaimie Henderson, MD, have shown how it would be possible to create a wireless device, capable of gathering and transmitting accurate neural signals, but using a tenth of the power required by current wire-enabled systems. These wireless devices would look more natural than the wired models and give patients freer range of motion.

Graduate student Nir Even-Chen and postdoctoral fellow Dante Muratore, PhD, describe the team’s approach in a Nature Biomedical Engineering paper.

The team’s neuroscientists identified the specific neural signals needed to control a prosthetic device, such as a robotic arm or a computer cursor. The team’s electrical engineers then designed the circuitry that would enable a future, wireless brain-computer interface to process and transmit these these carefully identified and isolated signals, using less power and thus making it safe to implant the device on the surface of the brain.

To test their idea, the researchers collected neuronal data from three nonhuman primates and one human participant in a (BrainGate) clinical trial.

As the subjects performed movement tasks, such as positioning a cursor on a computer screen, the researchers took measurements. The findings validated their hypothesis that a wireless interface could accurately control an individual’s motion by recording a subset of action-specific brain signals, rather than acting like the wired device and collecting brain signals in bulk.

The next step will be to build an implant based on this new approach and proceed through a series of tests toward the ultimate goal.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Power-saving design opportunities for wireless intracortical brain–computer interfaces by Nir Even-Chen, Dante G. Muratore, Sergey D. Stavisky, Leigh R. Hochberg, Jaimie M. Henderson, Boris Murmann & Krishna V. Shenoy. Nature Biomedical Engineering (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41551-020-0595-9 Published: 03 August 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Comments about ethical issues

As I found out while investigating, ethical issues in this area abound. My first thought was to look at how someone with a focus on ability studies might view the complexities.

My ‘go to’ resource for human enhancement and ethical issues is Gregor Wolbring, an associate professor at the University of Calgary (Alberta, Canada). his profile lists these areas of interest: ability studies, disability studies, governance of emerging and existing sciences and technologies (e.g. neuromorphic engineering, genetics, synthetic biology, robotics, artificial intelligence, automatization, brain machine interfaces, sensors) and more.

I can’t find anything more recent on this particular topic but I did find an August 10, 2017 essay for The Conversation where he comments on technology and human enhancement ethical issues where the technology is gene-editing. Regardless, he makes points that are applicable to brain-computer interfaces (human enhancement), Note: Links have been removed),

Ability expectations have been and still are used to disable, or disempower, many people, not only people seen as impaired. They’ve been used to disable or marginalize women (men making the argument that rationality is an important ability and women don’t have it). They also have been used to disable and disempower certain ethnic groups (one ethnic group argues they’re smarter than another ethnic group) and others.

A recent Pew Research survey on human enhancement revealed that an increase in the ability to be productive at work was seen as a positive. What does such ability expectation mean for the “us” in an era of scientific advancements in gene-editing, human enhancement and robotics?

Which abilities are seen as more important than others?

The ability expectations among “us” will determine how gene-editing and other scientific advances will be used.

And so how we govern ability expectations, and who influences that governance, will shape the future. Therefore, it’s essential that ability governance and ability literacy play a major role in shaping all advancements in science and technology.

One of the reasons I find Gregor’s commentary so valuable is that he writes lucidly about ability and disability as concepts and poses what can be provocative questions about expectations and what it is to be truly abled or disabled. You can find more of his writing here on his eponymous (more or less) blog.

Ethics of clinical trials for testing brain implants

This October 31, 2017 article by Emily Underwood for Science was revelatory,

In 2003, neurologist Helen Mayberg of Emory University in Atlanta began to test a bold, experimental treatment for people with severe depression, which involved implanting metal electrodes deep in the brain in a region called area 25 [emphases mine]. The initial data were promising; eventually, they convinced a device company, St. Jude Medical in Saint Paul, to sponsor a 200-person clinical trial dubbed BROADEN.

This month [October 2017], however, Lancet Psychiatry reported the first published data on the trial’s failure. The study stopped recruiting participants in 2012, after a 6-month study in 90 people failed to show statistically significant improvements between those receiving active stimulation and a control group, in which the device was implanted but switched off.

… a tricky dilemma for companies and research teams involved in deep brain stimulation (DBS) research: If trial participants want to keep their implants [emphases mine], who will take responsibility—and pay—for their ongoing care? And participants in last week’s meeting said it underscores the need for the growing corps of DBS researchers to think long-term about their planned studies.

… participants bear financial responsibility for maintaining the device should they choose to keep it, and for any additional surgeries that might be needed in the future, Mayberg says. “The big issue becomes cost [emphasis mine],” she says. “We transition from having grants and device donations” covering costs, to patients being responsible. And although the participants agreed to those conditions before enrolling in the trial, Mayberg says she considers it a “moral responsibility” to advocate for lower costs for her patients, even it if means “begging for charity payments” from hospitals. And she worries about what will happen to trial participants if she is no longer around to advocate for them. “What happens if I retire, or get hit by a bus?” she asks.

There’s another uncomfortable possibility: that the hypothesis was wrong [emphases mine] to begin with. A large body of evidence from many different labs supports the idea that area 25 is “key to successful antidepressant response,” Mayberg says. But “it may be too simple-minded” to think that zapping a single brain node and its connections can effectively treat a disease as complex as depression, Krakauer [John Krakauer, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland] says. Figuring that out will likely require more preclinical research in people—a daunting prospect that raises additional ethical dilemmas, Krakauer says. “The hardest thing about being a clinical researcher,” he says, “is knowing when to jump.”

Brain-computer interfaces, symbiosis, and ethical issues

This was the most recent and most directly applicable work that I could find. From a July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew for Nature Outlook: The brain,

“It becomes part of you,” Patient 6 said, describing the technology that enabled her, after 45 years of severe epilepsy, to halt her disabling seizures. Electrodes had been implanted on the surface of her brain that would send a signal to a hand-held device when they detected signs of impending epileptic activity. On hearing a warning from the device, Patient 6 knew to take a dose of medication to halt the coming seizure.

“You grow gradually into it and get used to it, so it then becomes a part of every day,” she told Frederic Gilbert, an ethicist who studies brain–computer interfaces (BCIs) at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia. “It became me,” she said. [emphasis mine]

Gilbert was interviewing six people who had participated in the first clinical trial of a predictive BCI to help understand how living with a computer that monitors brain activity directly affects individuals psychologically1. Patient 6’s experience was extreme: Gilbert describes her relationship with her BCI as a “radical symbiosis”.

Symbiosis is a term, borrowed from ecology, that means an intimate co-existence of two species for mutual advantage. As technologists work towards directly connecting the human brain to computers, it is increasingly being used to describe humans’ potential relationship with artificial intelligence.

Interface technologies are divided into those that ‘read’ the brain to record brain activity and decode its meaning, and those that ‘write’ to the brain to manipulate activity in specific regions and affect their function.

Commercial research is opaque, but scientists at social-media platform Facebook are known to be pursuing brain-reading techniques for use in headsets that would convert users’ brain activity into text. And neurotechnology companies such as Kernel in Los Angeles, California, and Neuralink, founded by Elon Musk in San Francisco, California, predict bidirectional coupling in which computers respond to people’s brain activity and insert information into their neural circuitry. [emphasis mine]

Already, it is clear that melding digital technologies with human brains can have provocative effects, not least on people’s agency — their ability to act freely and according to their own choices. Although neuroethicists’ priority is to optimize medical practice, their observations also shape the debate about the development of commercial neurotechnologies.

Neuroethicists began to note the complex nature of the therapy’s side effects. “Some effects that might be described as personality changes are more problematic than others,” says Maslen [Hannah Maslen, a neuroethicist at the University of Oxford, UK]. A crucial question is whether the person who is undergoing stimulation can reflect on how they have changed. Gilbert, for instance, describes a DBS patient who started to gamble compulsively, blowing his family’s savings and seeming not to care. He could only understand how problematic his behaviour was when the stimulation was turned off.

Such cases present serious questions about how the technology might affect a person’s ability to give consent to be treated, or for treatment to continue. [emphases mine] If the person who is undergoing DBS is happy to continue, should a concerned family member or doctor be able to overrule them? If someone other than the patient can terminate treatment against the patient’s wishes, it implies that the technology degrades people’s ability to make decisions for themselves. It suggests that if a person thinks in a certain way only when an electrical current alters their brain activity, then those thoughts do not reflect an authentic self.

To observe a person with tetraplegia bringing a drink to their mouth using a BCI-controlled robotic arm is spectacular. [emphasis mine] This rapidly advancing technology works by implanting an array of electrodes either on or in a person’s motor cortex — a brain region involved in planning and executing movements. The activity of the brain is recorded while the individual engages in cognitive tasks, such as imagining that they are moving their hand, and these recordings are used to command the robotic limb.

If neuroscientists could unambiguously discern a person’s intentions from the chattering electrical activity that they record in the brain, and then see that it matched the robotic arm’s actions, ethical concerns would be minimized. But this is not the case. The neural correlates of psychological phenomena are inexact and poorly understood, which means that signals from the brain are increasingly being processed by artificial intelligence (AI) software before reaching prostheses.[emphasis mine]

But, he [Philipp Kellmeyer, a neurologist and neuroethicist at the University of Freiburg, Germany] says, using AI tools also introduces ethical issues of which regulators have little experience. [emphasis mine] Machine-learning software learns to analyse data by generating algorithms that cannot be predicted and that are difficult, or impossible, to comprehend. This introduces an unknown and perhaps unaccountable process between a person’s thoughts and the technology that is acting on their behalf.

Maslen is already helping to shape BCI-device regulation. She is in discussion with the European Commission about regulations it will implement in 2020 that cover non-invasive brain-modulating devices that are sold straight to consumers. [emphases mine; Note: There is a Canadian company selling this type of product, MUSE] Maslen became interested in the safety of these devices, which were covered by only cursory safety regulations. Although such devices are simple, they pass electrical currents through people’s scalps to modulate brain activity. Maslen found reports of them causing burns, headaches and visual disturbances. She also says clinical studies have shown that, although non-invasive electrical stimulation of the brain can enhance certain cognitive abilities, this can come at the cost of deficits in other aspects of cognition.

Regarding my note about MUSE, the company is InteraXon and its product is MUSE.They advertise the product as “Brain Sensing Headbands That Improve Your Meditation Practice.” The company website and the product seem to be one entity, Choose Muse. The company’s product has been used in some serious research papers they can be found here. I did not see any research papers concerning safety issues.

Getting back to Drew’s July 24, 2019 article and Patient 6,

… He [Gilbert] is now preparing a follow-up report on Patient 6. The company that implanted the device in her brain to help free her from seizures went bankrupt. The device had to be removed.

… Patient 6 cried as she told Gilbert about losing the device. … “I lost myself,” she said.

“It was more than a device,” Gilbert says. “The company owned the existence of this new person.”

I strongly recommend reading Drew’s July 24, 2019 article in its entirety.

Finally

It’s easy to forget that in all the excitement over technologies ‘making our lives better’ that there can be a dark side or two. Some of the points brought forth in the articles by Wolbring, Underwood, and Drew confirmed my uneasiness as reasonable and gave me some specific examples of how these technologies raise new issues or old issues in new ways.

What I find interesting is that no one is using the term ‘cyborg’, which would seem quite applicable.There is an April 20, 2012 posting here titled ‘My mother is a cyborg‘ where I noted that by at lease one definition people with joint replacements, pacemakers, etc. are considered cyborgs. In short, cyborgs or technology integrated into bodies have been amongst us for quite some time.

Interestingly, no one seems to care much when insects are turned into cyborgs (can’t remember who pointed this out) but it is a popular area of research especially for military applications and search and rescue applications.

I’ve sometimes used the term ‘machine/flesh’ and or ‘augmentation’ as a description of technologies integrated with bodies, human or otherwise. You can find lots on the topic here however I’ve tagged or categorized it.

Amongst other pieces you can find here, there’s the August 8, 2016 posting, ‘Technology, athletics, and the ‘new’ human‘ featuring Oscar Pistorius when he was still best known as the ‘blade runner’ and a remarkably successful paralympic athlete. It’s about his efforts to compete against able-bodied athletes at the London Olympic Games in 2012. It is fascinating to read about technology and elite athletes of any kind as they are often the first to try out ‘enhancements’.

Gregor Wolbring has a number of essays on The Conversation looking at Paralympic athletes and their pursuit of enhancements and how all of this is affecting our notions of abilities and disabilities. By extension, one has to assume that ‘abled’ athletes are also affected with the trickle-down effect on the rest of us.

Regardless of where we start the investigation, there is a sameness to the participants in neuroethics discussions with a few experts and commercial interests deciding on how the rest of us (however you define ‘us’ as per Gregor Wolbring’s essay) will live.

This paucity of perspectives is something I was getting at in my COVID-19 editorial for the Canadian Science Policy Centre. My thesis being that we need a range of ideas and insights that cannot be culled from small groups of people who’ve trained and read the same materials or entrepreneurs who too often seem to put profit over thoughtful implementations of new technologies. (See the PDF May 2020 edition [you’ll find me under Policy Development]) or see my May 15, 2020 posting here (with all the sources listed.)

As for this new research at Stanford, it’s exciting news, which raises questions, as it offers the hope of independent movement for people diagnosed as tetraplegic (sometimes known as quadriplegic.)

Artificial nose for intelligent olfactory substitution

The signal transmitted into mouse brain can participate in mouse perception and act as the brain stimulator. (Image credit: Prof. ZHAN Yang)

I’m fascinated by the image. Are they suggesting putting implants into people’s brains that can sense dangerous gaseous molecules and convert that into data which can be read on a smartphone? And, are they harvesting bioenergy to supply energy to the implant?

A July 29, 2019 news item on Azonano was not as helpful in answering my questions as I’d hoped (Note: A link has been removed),

An artificial olfactory system based on a self-powered nano-generator has been built by Prof. ZHAN Yang’s team at the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology (SIAT) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences [CAS], together with colleagues at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China.

The device, which can detect a variety of odor molecules and identify different odors, has been demonstrated in vivo in animal models. The research titled “An artificial triboelectricity-brain-behavior closed loop for intelligent olfactory substitution” has been reported in Nano Energy.

A July 25, 2019 CAS press release, which originated the news item, provides a little more information,

Odor processing is important to many species. Specific olfactory receptors located on the neurons are involved in odor recognition. These different olfactory receptors form patterned distribution.

Inspired by the biological receptors, the teams collaborated on formulating an artificial olfactory system. Through nano-fabrication on the soft materials and special alignment of material structures, the teams built a self-power device that can code and differentiate different odorant molecules.

This device has been connected to the mouse brain to demonstrate that the olfactory signals can produce appropriate neural stimulation. When the self-powered device generated the electric currents, the mouse displayed behavioral motion changes.

This study, inspired by the biological olfactory system, provides insights on novel design of neural stimulation and brain-machine interface. 

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

An artificial triboelectricity-brain-behavior closed loop for intelligent olfactory substitution by Tianyan Zhong, Mengyang Zhang, Yongming Fu, Yechao Han, Hongye Guan, Haoxuan He, Tianming Zhao, Lili Xing, Xinyu Xue, Yan Zhang, Yang Zhan.Nano Energy Volume 63, September 2019, 103884 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nanoen.2019.103884

This paper is behind a paywall.