It might sound like science fiction, but Newcastle researchers – and big tech companies – believe it may soon be commonplace for devices implanted in our bodies to link our brains with computers.

Such devices – it is thought – could help with diseases like Alzheimer’s, allow us to ‘type’ just by thinking about it, and even lead to humans becoming somewhat ‘telepathic’.

In fact, the UK’s academy of sciences, the Royal Society, is urging the government to launch an enquiry into how such innovations – known as neural interface technologies – could revolutionise medicine, human interactions and wider society.

Neural interfaces are devices that can record or stimulate activity in the brain or nervous system. They can be implanted in the body or worn externally.

A report released this week – entitled iHuman – Blurring Lines between Mind and Machine – sees leading scientists, including some from Newcastle University, evaluate the opportunities and risks such technologies could bring.

It is thought that such ‘brain-computer’ technologies could help treat conditions such as dementia, paralysis, mental health problems and even obesity.

Big tech firms, on the other hand, are intrigued by how such advances could change the ways we communicate and use technology.

The report urges the government to act quickly to understand the hazards such technologies might pose and to bring in appropriate legislation. But it also encourages the government to grasp the opportunities offered by these technologies to help the UK become a leader in this emerging field.

Dr Andrew Simms, an honorary senior lecturer at Newcastle University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, said, “In Newcastle, academics in neuroscience and NHS scientists work together in developing new neural technologies, and have contributed their experience and foresight to the Royal Society’s report.”

“This not only recognises the region’s strengths in translating basic research into benefit for patients, but also its reputation for engaging patients and the public in shaping national debates associated with ground-breaking innovations.”

Dr Tim Constandinou, director of the Next Generation Neural Interfaces (NGNI) Lab, Imperial College London, said, “By 2040, neural interfaces are likely to be an established option to enable people to walk after paralysis and tackle treatment-resistant depression. They may even have made treating Alzheimer’s disease a reality.”

“While advances like seamless brain-to-computer communication seem a much more distant possibility, we should act now to ensure our ethical and regulatory safeguards are flexible enough for any future development.”

“In this way we can guarantee these emerging technologies are implemented safely and for the benefit of humanity.”

The Royal Society report stresses that action should be taken to prevent big tech companies developing a monopoly of such technologies.

And big tech certainly seems interested. Elon Musk has announced his desire to start trials as early as 2020 looking at how people with locked-in syndrome or paralysis might be able to use computer-brain technologies to control a phone.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has shown interest in how such technologies could enable ‘telepathic typing’, with his company researching whether – by just using a headset – people might be able to transcribe up to 100 words a minute.

The Royal Society Report also admits that humans may ‘become telepathic to some degree’ as neural interfaces become more complex and sophisticated.

Neural interfaces are already being used to help people recovering from strokes and suffering from epilepsy. They are also already used to help control appetite and improve sleep patterns.

Currently, the use of internal neural interfaces is not permitted for non-medical purposes, but this might change over time.

(Featured image courtesy of juannomore, from Flickr Creative Commons)

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