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Q&A: The Ethics of Using Brain Implants to Upgrade Yourself

Anders Sandberg considers the future of brain enhancements

11 min read
An illustration shows a human brain with a glowing chip on its surface.
Illustration: Alamy

Neurotechnology is one of the hottest areas of engineering, and the technological achievements sound miraculous: Paralyzed people have controlled robotic limbs and computer cursors with their brains, while blind people are receiving eye implants that send signals to their brains’ visual centers. Researchers are figuring out how to make better implantable devices and scalp electrodes to record brain signals or to send electricity into the brain to change the way it functions.

While many of these systems are intended to help people with serious disabilities or illnesses, there’s growing interest in using neurotech to augment the abilities of everyday people. Companies like Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink are developing consumer devices that may be used for brain-based communication, while some startups are exploring applications in entertainment. But what are the ethical implications of medding with our brains? And how far will we take it?

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This Implant Turns Brain Waves Into Words

A brain-computer interface deciphers commands intended for the vocal tract

10 min read
A man using an interface, looking at a screen with words on it.

A paralyzed man who hasn’t spoken in 15 years uses a brain-computer interface that decodes his intended speech, one word at a time.

University of California, San Francisco
Blue

A computer screen shows the question “Would you like some water?” Underneath, three dots blink, followed by words that appear, one at a time: “No I am not thirsty.”

It was brain activity that made those words materialize—the brain of a man who has not spoken for more than 15 years, ever since a stroke damaged the connection between his brain and the rest of his body, leaving him mostly paralyzed. He has used many other technologies to communicate; most recently, he used a pointer attached to his baseball cap to tap out words on a touchscreen, a method that was effective but slow. He volunteered for my research group’s clinical trial at the University of California, San Francisco in hopes of pioneering a faster method. So far, he has used the brain-to-text system only during research sessions, but he wants to help develop the technology into something that people like himself could use in their everyday lives.

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