This neurosurgeon wants to connect humans with Internet using brain-implants!
Dr. Eric Leuthardt, scientist-neurosurgeon at Washington University in St. Louis, believes "brain implants" to seamlessly connect people and computers will be the trend in the coming decades like tattoos and plastic-surgeries. They would allow people to explore a wide-range of "sensory experiences" without even leaving their houses. He also says people envision future with replicants (artificially-engineered humans) but miss bigger chunks like neural prosthetics.
Humans feel, think, and move because of the firing of neurons, but neuroscientists haven't yet entirely understood how neurons communicate with each other or with other body parts. There have been several experiments, but what inspired Leuthardt was Andrew Schwartz's 1990s work. Schwartz implanted electrodes in monkeys' brains to prove it was possible to teach them to control robotic limbs only by thinking.
Leuthardt recruited patients with intractable epilepsy, who have electrodes fixed on cortex for collecting their brain information, as experimental-subjects. He wanted to understand how the brain encodes thoughts/intentions, and how its signals can control external devices to achieve his goal of connecting man and the machine. He soon identified the limitations and understood how he could use technology to overcome the barriers.
While many were skeptical that brain signals and electrodes implanted in human heads would control prosthetics (artificial body parts), Leuthardt's patients were even able to play Space Invaders game (moving virtual spaceship left/right) just by thinking. They could also move a cursor in a three-dimensional space on the screen. He could achieve it after he recruited Gerwin Schalk, a computer scientist at Wadsworth Center.
Leuthardt also wrote novels and an award-winning play about "preparing society for the changes ahead." He says once technologies advance, humans will evolve with the help of brain implants this time. He added: "A true fluid neural integration is going to happen. It's just a matter of when. If it's 10 or 100 years…it's a material development in the course of human history."
The 44-year-old neurosurgeon says that with the speed at which technology is changing, in about 20 years, data in a cell-phone could be stored in a rice grain that can be implanted into human brain "in a minimally invasive way." He says humans would then be able to evolve and perform all the computations required to become an efficient "brain-computer interface."
Leuthardt says with sufficient funding he could develop a prosthetic implant for the general market that would allow people to use computer, control cursor in 3D space, turn lights on/off, convert imagined speech-into-text, and experience artificially-induced tactile sensations using only their thoughts. To prove there's a market for such devices, he and Schalk founded NeuroLutions in 2008 and began using technology for helping people.
NeuroLutions so far developed a non-invasive brain interface (in trials) for stroke victims, who lose movement/feel on one side. Leuthardt can achieve more by implanting electrodes on the brain's cortex, but it's extremely painful, and patients may not opt for it. It seems investors also aren't coming forward; NeuroLutions wanted to develop an interface to restore movement to paralytic patients, but investors weren't interested.
In Leuthardt's novel, RedDevil 4, characters use "cortical prosthetic" to access all the world's libraries, communicate telepathically, explore various experiences, etc. However, their brains are vulnerable to computer-viruses. However, the neurosurgeon claims nothing would stop humans from reaching the ultimate goal: developing a technology to surpass the cognitive-physical limitations. Leuthardt insisted: "This has the potential to alter the evolutionary direction of the human race."