Superpowers such as telekinesis, mind reading and mind control have long been portrayed as merely a matter of science fiction. While advances in technology and neurology have led to some brain-controlled prosthetics that users can operate seamlessly with their minds, these inventions have largely been limited to the research setting. However, research groups are making huge strides in this field that are leading us closer to realizing the feats of strength once relegated to comic book stories. In fact, the military will make this a reality sooner than you think.
Research from Dr. Marayam Shanechi’s lab at the University of Southern California is drastically improving the precision of machines in reading signals from subjects’ minds and translating them into movement. Shanechi created a mind-reading algorithm able to read signals from electrodes implanted in a monkey’s premotor cortex and use them to predict how the monkey wanted to use a computer cursor. While previous technology has only been able to process desired motions one by one, Shanechi’s algorithms are able to predict a series of motions, allowing for more precisely executed movements. A machine was able to move the cursor from measurements gleaned on the order of milliseconds, whereas previous technology has only been able to register desired movement every 100 milliseconds.
This line of work not only has the potential to drastically improve prosthetics, but also may be able to provide new treatment options for patients with psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Shanechi’s group has found that computers can measure the brain waves of patients over time along with their reported moods and use this data to judge a given person’s current mood based on their brain activity. While this has only been tested on patients who already have electrodes implanted in their brains for epilepsy treatment, Shanechi is hopeful the technology can be used for patients with psychiatric disorders. In addition to registering patients’ moods, the group is also testing how different forms of brain stimulation impact brain cells to change a subject’s way of thinking.
While this proposed technology could do a lot of good in the medical realm, it is easy to see potentially more sinister applications in a military context. During the Cold War, the CIA believed communists had developed a mind-controlling technique and created a secret program in response (dubbed MK-ULTRA) that aimed to create a drug that could control the minds of enemies. While this effort was ultimately unsuccessful, the military has not finished its quest for inventions involving the mind as both a weapon and a target.
Back in May, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced that six research teams would receive funding under the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (n3) program. The effort aims to develop techniques allowing for two-way communication between the mind and machines that are as surgically noninvasive as possible. Normally, one must perform some action (such as pressing a button) to tell a machine what to do. However, military-funded scientists are attempting to close that gap, allowing subjects to control weapons such as multiple drones with their minds and receive information automatically about where these drones are. While this research is still in very rudimentary stages, researchers are looking into the use of magnetic nanoparticles that could be targeted to specific neurons and transmit signals between the associated neurons and a headset through magnetic fields. If technological advances also allowed for the altering of moods, the military would likely attempt to harness these techniques to control and read the minds of enemies.
While such military advances may sound alarmingly powerful, the successful execution of these ideas remains in the distant future. Presently, using the intersection of technology and neuroscience has the potential to create great strides in medical science and positively impact many people. While science fiction movies and dystopian novels have often portrayed technology as a force for evil or a power too great for humans to control, it is important to not let fear hold us back from its ability to do good.
Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.