Welcome to the exciting (brave?) new world of deep brain stimulation.
Does the idea of implanting a chip in someone’s brain give you the creeps? Fear not! Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and UCSF are currently trying to change the popular conception from this:
The researchers are attempting to use implanted brain chip technology to improve the symptoms of people with a host of mental health problems.
From a technical standpoint, I’ve understood very little of what it means to put a chip in someone’s brain. My conception—based mostly on paranoid sci-fi movies—goes something like this:
- Insert chip in brain.
- Chip does chip-related things.
- Brain now yours to command.
Kristen Brown at Gizmodo has written a wonderfully thorough article into the deep brain stimulation (DBS) process under development by these research teams. The “chips” are not direct interfaces with thoughts. You can’t type commands and have them obeyed. Rather, they provide a means of attaching electrodes and stimulating parts of the brain with “incredible geographic specificity” (Brown).
The chips are capable of sending signals that mimic natural brain signals. Firing off a signal at the right time to counter a negative signal might allow the chip to “nudge a decision.”
But the article also illustrates why it’s so difficult to talk about human biotech modification in purely dystopian terms. Scary as it is (and it IS scary), this technology will work miracles for a lot of people with terrible brain disorders. For at least one woman described in the piece, it already has.
If you have any familiarity with this blog, you may be wondering: ok, but when are you getting to the REALLY creepy part?
Let’s consider where the research funding comes from: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Ah, there it is.
Ok, DARPA is not inherently sinister. It gets the villain treatment in a smattering of sci-fi horror movies, but having such an agency is just common sense.
We need defense, defense needs research, and research is better when it’s advanced. Research requires projects, and agencies are great for coordinating projects.
See? The acronym comes together nicely.
Still, it’s hard to credit a secretive military research agency with entirely altruistic motives. DARPA says their main goal is to “develop therapies for the many thousands of soldiers and veterans with wounded brains.” This is a needed and noble goal, and I hope that’s where it begins and ends.
But no matter how innocent a project seems, DARPA funding has to make you raise an eyebrow.
While out for a pleasant afternoon stroll, Walker happens upon a girl’s neighborhood lemonade stand.
Girl: Hello sir, would you like some lemonade?
Walker: That would be lovely. How much?
Girl: One dollar.
Walker: Well, I just happen to have a dollar. That’s a deal, young lady.
Walker hands over a dollar. Girl pours lemonade. Walker tries it.
Walker: Delicious! Did you make it yourself?
Girl: No, sir. It comes from DARPA.
Girl: That’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Walker: I know what DARPA is. I’m just not sure why they’re funding lemonade stands.
Girl: To help the small business owner and make people feel better. Don’t you feel better?
Walker: I guess, but…
Walker stares awkwardly at his lemonade.
Girl: Aren’t you going to finish it?
Walker: Maybe later.
Girl: If you don’t finish, it will really hurt my feelings.
Walker: That’s bad.
Girl: And I have to report non-consumption of the product. It’s a condition of my funding. Now if I could just have your name…
Walker: (running away) I’ll finish later! I promise!
Brown spoke with the DBS project engineering lead, who told her that “he imagines their device one day being sophisticated enough that patients could control some settings via an app, giving them control over how much psychiatric assistance they receive on a day-to-day basis.”
How’s that for a little dystopian flavor?
Brown even references the “soma” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: a hallucinogenic drug people use to suppress unhappy emotions. The novel has been getting more attention of late, and soma has been compared to any number of our diversions—cell phones, entertainment, news, social media.
But an app that alters your brain circuitry to make you feel happy with just a touch? That’s what we writers call “on the nose.”
Again, I don’t want to be a jerk about this. At this stage, the technology is about helping people who really need it, and I hope it does exactly that. The makers definitely probably don’t want to make us into transhumans/cyborgs/cybermen or button-pushing droolers.
They will, of course. Just not yet.
What do you think? Do you share my own confusion about where to come down on these technologies that will help people today and get scary tomorrow?
I leave you with a bit of my own personal soma: side-by-side pictures of donuts and a kitten.