Tag Archives: machine/flesh

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.

Neural and technological inequalities

I’m always happy to see discussions about the social implications of new and emerging technologies. In this case, the discussion was held at the Fast Company (magazine) European Innovation Festival. KC Ifeanyi wrote a July 10, 2019 article for Fast Company highlighting a session between two scientists focusing on what I’ve termed ‘machine/flesh’ or is, sometimes, called a cyborg but not with these two scientists (Note: A link has been removed),

At the Fast Company European Innovation Festival today, scientists Moran Cerf and Riccardo Sabatini had a wide-ranging discussion on the implications of technology that can hack humanity. From ethical questions to looking toward human biology for solutions, here are some of the highlights:

The ethics of ‘neural inequality’

There are already chips that can be implanted in the brain to help recover bodily functions after a stroke or brain injury. However, what happens if (more likely when) a chip in your brain can be hacked or even gain internet access, essentially making it possible for some people (more likely wealthy people) to process information much more quickly than others?

“It’s what some call neural inequality,” says Cerf, a neuroscientist and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management and at the neuroscience program at Northwestern University. …

Opening new pathways to thought through bionics

Cerf mentioned a colleague who was born without his left hand. He engineered a bionic one that he can control with an app and that has the functionality of doing things no human hand can do, like rotating 360 degrees. As fun of a party trick as that is, Cerf brings up a good point in that his colleague’s brain is processing something we can’t, thereby possibly opening new pathways of thought.

“The interesting thing, and this is up to us to investigate, is his brain can think thoughts that you cannot think [emphasis mine] because he has a function you don’t have,” Cerf says. …

The innovation of your human body

As people look to advanced bionics to amplify their senses or abilities, Sabatini, chief data scientist at Orionis Biosciences, makes the argument that our biological bodies are far more advanced than we give them credit for. …

Democratizing tech’s edges

Early innovation so often comes with a high price tag. The cost of experimenting with nascent technology or running clinical trials can be exorbitant. And Sabatini believes democratizing that part of the process is where the true innovation will be. …

Earlier technology that changed our thinking and thoughts

This isn’t the first time that technology has altered our thinking and the kinds of thoughts we have as per ” brain can think thoughts that you cannot think.” According to Walter J. Ong’s 1982 book, ‘Orality and Literacy’,that’s what writing did to us; it changed our thinking and the kinds of thoughts we have.

It took me quite a while to understand ‘writing’ as a technology, largely due to how much I took it for granted. Once I made that leap, it changed how I understood the word technology. Then, the idea that ‘writing’ could change your brain didn’t require as dramatic a leap although it fundamentally altered my concept of the relationship between technology and humans. Up to that time, I had viewed technology as an instrument that allowed me to accomplish goals (e.g., driving a car from point a to point b) but it had very little impact on me as a person.

You can find out more about Walter J. Ong and his work in his Wikipedia entry. Pay special attention to the section about, Orality and Literacy.

Who’s talking about technology and our thinking?

The article about the scientists (Cerf and Sabatini) at the Fast Company European Innovation Festival (held July 9 -10, 2019 in Milan, Italy) never mentions cyborgs. Presumably, neither did Sabatini or Cerf. It seems odd. Two thinkers were discussing ‘neural inequality’ and there was no mention of a cyborg (human and machine joined together).

Interestingly, the lead sponsor for this innovation festival was Gucci. That company would not have been my first guess or any other guess for that matter as having an interest in neural inequality.

So, Gucci sponsored a festival that is not not cheap. A two-day pass was $1600. (early birds got a discount of $457) and a ‘super’ pass was $2,229 (with an early bird discount of $629). So, you didn’t get into the room unless you had a fair chunk of change and time.

The tension, talking about inequality at a festival or other venue that most people can’t afford to attend, is discussed at more length in Anand Giridharadas’s 2018 book, ‘Winners Take All; The Elite Charade of Changing the World’.

It’s not just who gets to discuss ‘neural inequality’, it’s when you get to discuss it, which affects how the discussion is framed.

There aren’t an easy answers to these questions but I find the easy assumption that the wealthy and the science and technology communities get first dibs at the discussion a little disconcerting while being perfectly predictable.

On the plus side, there are artists and others who have jumped in and started the discussion by turning themselves into cyborgs. This August 14, 2015 article (Body-hackers: the people who turn themselves into cyborgs) by Oliver Wainwright for the Guardian is very informative and not for the faint of heart.

For the curious, I’ve been covering these kinds of stories here since 2009. The category ‘human enhancement’ and the search term ‘machine/flesh’ should provide you with an assortment of stories on the topic.

Human-machine interfaces and ultra-small nanoprobes

We’re back on the cyborg trail or what I sometimes refer to as machine/flesh. A July 3, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily describes the latest attempts to join machine with flesh,

Machine enhanced humans — or cyborgs as they are known in science fiction — could be one step closer to becoming a reality, thanks to new research Lieber Group at Harvard University, as well as scientists from University of Surrey and Yonsei University.

Researchers have conquered the monumental task of manufacturing scalable nanoprobe arrays small enough to record the inner workings of human cardiac cells and primary neurons.

The ability to read electrical activities from cells is the foundation of many biomedical procedures, such as brain activity mapping and neural prosthetics. Developing new tools for intracellular electrophysiology (the electric current running within cells) that push the limits of what is physically possible (spatiotemporal resolution) while reducing invasiveness could provide a deeper understanding of electrogenic cells and their networks in tissues, as well as new directions for human-machine interfaces.

The Lieber Group at Harvard University provided this image illustrating the work,

U-shaped nanowires can record electrical chatter inside a brain or heart cell without causing any damage. The devices are 100 times smaller than their biggest competitors, which kill a cell after recording. Courtesy: University of Surrey

A July 3, 2019 University of Surrey press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details about this UK/US/China collaboration,

In a paper published by Nature Nanotechnology, scientists from Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) and Harvard University detail how they produced an array of the ultra-small U-shaped nanowire field-effect transistor probes for intracellular recording. This incredibly small structure was used to record, with great clarity, the inner activity of primary neurons and other electrogenic cells, and the device has the capacity for multi-channel recordings.

Dr Yunlong Zhao from the ATI at the University of Surrey said: “If our medical professionals are to continue to understand our physical condition better and help us live longer, it is important that we continue to push the boundaries of modern science in order to give them the best possible tools to do their jobs. For this to be possible, an intersection between humans and machines is inevitable.

“Our ultra-small, flexible, nanowire probes could be a very powerful tool as they can measure intracellular signals with amplitudes comparable with those measured with patch clamp techniques; with the advantage of the device being scalable, it causes less discomfort and no fatal damage to the cell (cytosol dilation). Through this work, we found clear evidence for how both size and curvature affect device internalisation and intracellular recording signal.”

Professor Charles Lieber from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University said: “This work represents a major step towards tackling the general problem of integrating ‘synthesised’ nanoscale building blocks into chip and wafer scale arrays, and thereby allowing us to address the long-standing challenge of scalable intracellular recording.

“The beauty of science to many, ourselves included, is having such challenges to drive hypotheses and future work. In the longer term, we see these probe developments adding to our capabilities that ultimately drive advanced high-resolution brain-machine interfaces and perhaps eventually bringing cyborgs to reality.”

Professor Ravi Silva, Director of the ATI at the University of Surrey, said: “This incredibly exciting and ambitious piece of work illustrates the value of academic collaboration. Along with the possibility of upgrading the tools we use to monitor cells, this work has laid the foundations for machine and human interfaces that could improve lives across the world.”

Dr Yunlong Zhao and his team are currently working on novel energy storage devices, electrochemical probing, bioelectronic devices, sensors and 3D soft electronic systems. Undergraduate, graduate and postdoc students with backgrounds in energy storage, electrochemistry, nanofabrication, bioelectronics, tissue engineering are very welcome to contact Dr Zhao to explore the opportunities further.

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

Scalable ultrasmall three-dimensional nanowire transistor probes for intracellular recording by Yunlong Zhao, Siheng Sean You, Anqi Zhang, Jae-Hyun Lee, Jinlin Huang & Charles M. Lieber. Nature Nanotechnology (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-019-0478-y Published 01 July 2019

The link I’ve provided leads to a paywall. However, I found a freely accessible version of the paper (this may not be the final published version) here.

Getting chipped

A January 23, 2018 article by John Converse Townsend for Fast Company highlights the author’s experience of ‘getting chipped’ in Wisconsin (US),

I have an RFID, or radio frequency ID, microchip implanted in my hand. Now with a wave, I can unlock doors, fire off texts, login to my computer, and even make credit card payments.

There are others like me: The majority of employees at the Wisconsin tech company Three Square Market (or 32M) have RFID implants, too. Last summer, with the help of Andy “Gonzo” Whitehead, a local body piercer with 17 years of experience, the company hosted a “chipping party” for employees who’d volunteered to test the technology in the workplace.

“We first presented the concept of being chipped to the employees, thinking we might get a few people interested,” CEO [Chief Executive Officer] Todd Westby, who has implants in both hands, told me. “Literally out of the box, we had 40 people out of close to 90 that were here that said, within 10 minutes, ‘I would like to be chipped.’”

Westby’s left hand can get him into the office, make phone calls, and stores his living will and drivers license information, while the chip in his right hand is using for testing new applications. (The CEO’s entire family is chipped, too.) Other employees said they have bitcoin wallets and photos stored on their devices.

The legendary Gonzo Whitehead was waiting for me when I arrived at Three Square Market HQ, located in quiet River Falls, 40 minutes east of Minneapolis. The minutes leading up to the big moment were a bit nervy, after seeing the size of the needle (it’s huge), but the experience was easier than I could have imagined. The RFID chip is the size of a grain of basmati rice, but the pain wasn’t so bad–comparable to a bee sting, and maybe less so. I experienced a bit of bruising afterward (no bleeding), and today the last remaining mark of trauma is a tiny, fading scar between my thumb and index finger. Unless you were looking for it, the chip resting under my skin is invisible.

Truth is, the applications for RFID implants are pretty cool. But right now, they’re also limited. Without a near-field communication (NFC) writer/reader, which powers on a “passive” RFID chip to write and read information to the device’s memory, an implant isn’t of much use. But that’s mostly a hardware issue. As NFC technology becomes available, which is increasingly everywhere thanks to Samsung Pay and Apple Pay and new contactless “tap-and-go” credit cards, the possibilities become limitless. [emphasis mine]

Health and privacy?

Townsend does cover a few possible downsides to the ‘limitless possibilities’ offered by RFID’s combined with NFC technology,

From a health perspective, the RFID implants are biologically safe–not so different from birth control implants [emphasis mine]. [US Food and Drug Administration] FDA-sanctioned for use in humans since 2004, the chips neither trigger metal detectors nor disrupt [magnetic resonance imaging] MRIs, and their glass casings hold up to pressure testing, whether that’s being dropped from a rooftop or being run over by a pickup truck.

The privacy side of things is a bit more complicated, but the undeniable reality is that privacy isn’t as prized as we’d like to think [emphasis mine]. It’s already a regular concession to convenience.

“Your information’s for sale every day,” McMullen [Patrick McMullen, president, Three Square Market] says. “Thirty-four billion avenues exist for your information to travel down every single day, whether you’re checking Facebook, checking out at the supermarket, driving your car . . . your information’s everywhere.

Townsend may not be fully up-to-date on the subject of birth control implants. I think ‘safeish’ might be a better description in light of this news of almost two years ago (from a March 1, 2016 news item on CBS [Columbia Broadcasting Service] News [online]), Note: Links have been removed,

[US] Federal health regulators plan to warn consumers more strongly about Essure, a contraceptive implant that has drawn thousands of complaints from women reporting chronic pain, bleeding and other health problems.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Monday it would add a boxed warning — its most serious type — to alert doctors and patients to problems reported with the nickel-titanium implant.

But the FDA stopped short of removing the device from the market, a step favored by many women who have petitioned the agency in the last year. Instead, the agency is requiring manufacturer Bayer to conduct studies of the device to further assess its risks in different groups of women.

The FDA is requiring Bayer to conduct a study of 2,000 patients comparing problems like unplanned pregnancy and pelvic pain between patients getting Essure and those receiving traditional “tube tying” surgery. Agency officials said they have reviewed more than 600 reports of women becoming pregnant after receiving Essure. Women are supposed to get a test after three months to make sure Essure is working appropriately, but the agency noted some women do not follow-up for the test.

FDA officials acknowledged the proposed study would take years to complete, but said Bayer would be expected to submit interim results by mid-2017.

According to a Sept. 25, 2017 article by Kerri O’Brien for WRIC.com, Bayer had suspended sales of their device in all countries except the US,

Bayer, the manufacturer of Essure, has announced it’s halting sales of Essure in all countries outside of the U.S. In a statement, Bayer told 8News it’s due to a lack of interest in the product outside of the U.S.

“Bayer made a commercial decision this Spring to discontinue the distribution of Essure® outside of the U.S. where there is not as much patient interest in permanent birth control,” the statement read.

The move also comes after the European Union suspended sales of the device. The suspension was prompted by the National Standards Authority of Ireland declining to renew Essure’s CE marketing. “CE,” according to the European Commission website signifies products sold in the EEA that has been assessed to meet “high safety, health, and environmental protection requirements.”

These excerpts are about the Essure birth control implant. Perhaps others are safer? That noted, it does seem that Townsend was a bit dismissive of safety concerns.

As for privacy, he does investigate further to discover this,

As technology evolves and becomes more sophisticated, the methods to break it also evolve and get more sophisticated, says D.C.-based privacy expert Michelle De Mooy. Even so, McMullen believes that our personal information is safer in our hand than in our wallets. He  says the smartphone you touch 2,500 times a day does 100 times more reporting of data than does an RFID implant, plus the chip can save you from pickpockets and avoid credit card skimmers altogether.

Well, the first sentence suggests some caution. As for De Mooy, there’s this from her profile page on the Center for Democracy and Technology website (Note: A link has been removed),

Michelle De Mooy is Director of the Privacy & Data Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology. She advocates for data privacy rights and protections in legislation and regulation, works closely with industry and other stakeholders to investigate good data practices and controls, as well as identifying and researching emerging technology that impacts personal privacy. She leads CDT’s health privacy work, chairing the Health Privacy Working Group and focusing on the intersection between individual privacy, health information and technology. Michelle’s current research is focused on ethical and privacy-aware internal research and development in wearables, the application of data analytics to health information found on non-traditional platforms, like social media, and the growing market for genetic data. She has testified before Congress on health policy, spoken about native advertising at the Federal Trade Commission, and written about employee wellness programs for US News & World Report’s “Policy Dose” blog. Michelle is a frequent media contributor, appearing in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Vice, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as on The Today Show, Voice of America, and Government Matters TV programs.

Ethics anyone?

Townsend does raise some ethical issues (Note: A link has been removed),

… Word from CEO Todd Westby is that parents in Wisconsin have been asking whether (and when) they can have their children implanted with GPS-enabled devices (which, incidentally, is the subject of the “Arkangel” episode in the new season of Black Mirror [US television programme]). But that, of course, raises ethical questions: What if a kid refused to be chipped? What if they never knew?

Final comments on implanted RFID chips and bodyhacking

It doesn’t seem that implantable chips have changed much since I first wrote about them in a May 27, 2010 posting titled: Researcher infects self with virus.  In that instance, Dr Mark Gasson, a researcher at the University of Reading. introduced a virus into a computer chip implanted in his body.

Of course since 2010, there are additional implantable items such as computer chips and more making their way into our bodies and it doesn’t seem to be much public discussion (other than in popular culture) about the implications.

Presumably, there are policy makers tracking these developments. I have to wonder if the technology gurus will continue to tout these technologies as already here or having made such inroads that we (the public) are presented with a fait accompli with the policy makers following behind.

Audio tattoo

When I use the term machine/flesh, it’s usually about hardware being combined with the body (e.g., neuroprosthetics) but this news bit concerns a rather different way of integrating technology into the body. From a January ?, 2018 news item on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Newsbeat,

In the message, her grandma can be heard wishing her a happy birthday, before saying “I love you”.

She tells her granddaughter [Sakyrah Morris of Chicago, Illinois, US]: “You should be up and awake because it’s your birthday, you rock-headed little kid.”

With an app, Sakyrah is able to scan the waveform of the voice recording and play it back using image recognition.

“My grandmother passed away in May 2015 and my birthday was the month before in April,” she  told Newsbeat.

“She called me a little past midnight to wish me happy birthday and to tell me that she loved me.

“I had been holding onto that voicemail for what’s been almost three years now and I got the idea recently to get it tattooed.

“I figured it’d be something permanent that would be across my heart to be more meaningful.”

Mark Molloy’s January 5, 2018 article for The Telegraph provides more details about Morris and her audio tattoo (Note: A link has been removed),

Singer Sakyrah Morris can hear a voicemail birthday message left by her grandmother by simply hovering her smartphone camera over the soundwave tattoo.

The personalised tattoos are created by company Skin Motion using a combination of audio processing, image recognition and cloud computing.

When her grandmother passed away, Sakyrah “decided to save the voicemail in as many places as I could” and later decided to invest in a soundwave tattoo.

“About a month ago while working on one of my songs, I started to observe the sound waves on the screen and I thought that it would be great for me to get a tattoo of one with my grandmother’s voicemail,” she added.

“After doing some research, I came across a new company called Skin Motion. Their app allows you to link the image of your tattoo to the audio of your choice, so that when you hold your camera over the tattoo, the audio will play the message. …

You can hear the tattoo (from Emily Chan’s Jan. ,3 2018 Daily Mail article),

I went digging for more information about Skin Motion and found this on their About Us webpage,

Skin Motion is a tattoo artist network and patent-pending cloud platform for creating personalized augmented reality Tattoos.

In April 2017, tattoo artist Nate Siggard created the first Soundwave Tattoo™ to be played back using a mobile app. He created a video to show how it worked and the video went viral with over 280 million views.

Skin Motion was founded shortly after to make Soundwave Tattoos a reality for people all over the world who wanted to get them. Some of these people sent us messages about why they wanted to get a Soundwave Tattoo and the stories they shared inspired a team of experts to create the patent-pending augmented reality cloud platform for personalized augmented reality Tattoos.

Skin Motion is based in Los Angeles, California and has licensed Tattoo Artists from countries all over the world to create Soundwave Tattoos. You can find an artist close to you in the Tattoo Artist Directory.

A little more digging brought me to the Insider YouTube channel where I found this video, which offers a little more detail about how the technology works,

I wonder what happens should your ‘loved’ one become an ‘unloved’ one. Is the removal process the same as with a standard tattoo? Curiously, the question is not in the company’s Frequently Asked Questions.