When Vivienne L’Ecuyer Ming, the eminent American theoretical neuroscientist and artificial intelligence (AI) expert learned that her son is autistic, she tried to give him a “superpower” via the use of technology, to compensate his inability to decipher emotions. She wished to turn her son into a cyborg and perhaps in the meantime, changed our understanding of what it is to be a human being. 

In her article for Quartz published last week, Ming said her decision is a natural outcome of a Tiger mom who also happens to be a mad scientist. In fact, this is not the first time Ming had purposefully tempted with his son’s welfare. Earlier, as she wrote, “when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I hacked his insulin pump and built an AI that learned to match his insulin to his emotions and activities”. 

This time, she mentioned a proof of concept system called SuperGlass which she built in 2013. The system has an outlook of a Google glass, and it assists autistic children to perceive more comfortably whether a person in front of them is happy, sad, angry or something else. A recent clinical trial done by Stanford University showed that the system is capable of improving children’s learning of emotions, even when they are not wearing it. 

A week of Brain-Computer Interface 

Ming was not the only who talked about Neuroprosthetics or implants that directly interface with our brains last week. Neuralink, a startup founded by technology entrepreneur, Elon Musk, revealed on 16 July through a livestreamed presentation that the company had tried to implant flexible electrode threads into animals’ brains to detect their neuron activities with the assistance of a neurosurgeon and a neurosurgical robot. 

These fine-as-human-hairthreads are able to capture data from up to 15000 neurons, with a success rate of about 78%. The company plans to start testing the implants on human on the second quarter of year 2020 and it is now awaiting for the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval. With that, four 8-millimetre holes are likely to be drilled on the human volunteer’s skull to have the threads inserted. The data will then be collected by a cochlear implant like device behind the ear before sending over to a computer. 

The startup’s head neurosurgeon Dr. Matt Mcdougall said presently, the Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) is meant for patients with serious medical conditions or complete paralysis due to upper spinal cord injury only. The entire procedure could be performed under conscious sedation with no overnight hospital stay required. A white paper was released a day after the presentation to detail the entire protocol.

Two schools of thoughts 

Musk’s idea took over the front pages of many tech news even though it is not entirely novel. Researchers, many like Ming, have been working on brain implants with similar intentions for at least a decade but most of them took place in the laboratory context. So, what Neuralink does is to try and commercialize the idea by engineering something safe and practical for the use of many. 

However, as mentioned in our earlier articles, we may not be ready to augment ourselves just yet because there isn’t an ethical framework in place to ensure those who receive BCI truly needs it. As Ming pointed out in her article, poverty and stress take away their cognitive capabilities of children, while having wealthy parents impact otherwise. New neurotechnologies like BCI may further promote existing inequalities in our society. 

“Imagine these advantages not being subtly embedded in the life experience of well-off Westerners, but being directly for sale,” she wrote. That’s why as much as Ming wants to turn her son into a cyborg, she also wishes to invent tools that will allow the World to see the “differences” that her son experiences. 

The most ironic part is Musk started Neuralink in 2016 because he wishes to assist human to compete with AI. If AI, as believed by many researchers right now, is a means to an end and it requires constant human supervision, does surpass it with BCI makes any sense? 

Author Bio
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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.