Last August, a revolutionary team of researchers from Korea and the United States may have created what might be the most influential innovation of the century. By using tiny, drug-delivering implants embedded into parts of the brain, these scientists were successful in controlling the neural circuits of mice through a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone.
In short, not only did the team unlock the possibility of mind control, but they also made it accessible wirelessly, through devices available to a third of the world’s population.
Of course, it isn’t a surprise that remotely gaining control over another person’s mind is a complete game-changer, but how does the technology work, and what does it mean for us?
Thoughts Are Neurons, Neurons Are Thoughts
One of the fundamental principles of neuroscience is that the thoughts, emotions, and actions expressed by your brain are the results of the cumulative efforts of billions of neurons firing. The more neurons present and the more interneural connections joining them, generally, the more complexities that the cells can handle.
This is why animal species considered as being ‘smarter’ and highly evolved, regardless of actual brain size, tend to have more neurons and interneural connections than their less advanced counterparts.
Think of a neuron as a power grid that stores, processes, and outputs electricity as a signal to a vast network of other neurons, which each store, process, and output signals in the same way.
With the human brain packing a mind-boggling 100 trillion neural connections alone, it’s pretty easy to imagine why we’re considered the smartest species (at least according to us). It also goes to show how intelligent thought is the result of the teamwork between countless neurons:
While a single neuron or even a team as large as ten or a hundred struggle to perform simple addition problems, a network of neurons as large as the hundred billion neurons in the brain has exponentially higher computational power.
These dedicated clusters of neurons found in specific parts of the brain are each responsible for their own functions. By taking in the massive amounts of sensory data collected by your nervous system and your five senses in real-time, your neurons fire and stay stable in specific patterns to produce the optimal reaction.
For example, when putting your hand over a hot stove, the unpleasurable searing sensation is communicated to your brain through input from your nervous system, and in a fraction of a second, your neurons fire to cause your hand to move away from the source of pain.
Similarly, neurons form the basis of thought, and the scientists realized that by controlling the firing of neurons at will, they could attain complete control of a mouse. To do this, the researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and Washington University developed compact, modular ‘cartridges’ that contained neuromodulating drugs. With a trigger from a Bluetooth-connected smartphone, an implant in the brain would control the release of this drug, and in turn, the brain’s neural activity.
In their paper, the group utilized the device to accurately control the movements of mice, and in the future, seek to get a go-ahead to start testing on humans, and no matter how suspicious or dangerous this innovation may seem, the team aims to use the implant for lifesaving procedures, as well as to investigate the root cause of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The Ethics of Mind Control (A.K.A Getting Your Brain Hacked)
As far-fetched as the concept of mind-hacking may sound, this research proves that this future may not be so distant. When an implant that’s been given complete control of one’s brain can be accessed over smartphones, it would be illogical not to worry a bit.
More importantly, in a future where people are almost certain to merge themselves with some form of technology, now’s the best time to take our values into consideration. Is it worth it to enhance the capabilities of our brains in exchange for potentially giving it up completely? Are we prepared for this sort of paradigm-shift in something as fundamental as our own cognition? What will this technology mean for us, as well as the lives of future generations?
Unfortunately, none of these questions have simple, straightforward answers — these are moral dilemmas that everyone has their take on, and it’s up to you to question these for yourself so you know your boundaries in the years to come. With an innovation this groundbreaking, it’s necessary that people get together to discuss some of the groundbreaking ethical issues surrounding it as well.
This isn’t to say that this technology doesn’t have its benefits — in fact, it’s likely to be one of the most consequential inventions to date, and with advancements in security, cost, and widespread adoption, this device could revolutionize the way we see the very concept of thought, so make sure to keep that in your mind (Hopefully you got that one).
Thank you for reading.