Eric Leuthardt, a neurosurgeon at Washington University in St. Louis, has spent a lot of time thinking about a near future where doctors will insert electrodes into our brains so that we can communicate directly with computers and each other.
Leuthardt specializes in operating on patients with epilepsy, all of whom must spend several days before their main surgery with electrodes implanted on their cortex as computers collect information about the neural firing patterns that precede their seizures.
About 15 years ago, Leuthardt had a realization:
Why not recruit patients to serve as experimental subjects? It would both ease their boredom and help bring his dreams closer to reality.
He analyzed their brain signals to see what he might learn about how the brain encodes our thoughts and intentions, and how such signals might be used to control external devices.
Additionally, he began designing tasks for them to do.
Leuthardt knows that brain surgery is dangerous, scary, and difficult for the patient.
However, his understanding of the brain has also given him a clear view of its inherent limitations, and the capability of technology to help overcome them.
He insists, ''Once the rest of the world understands the promise, and once the technologies progress the human race will do what it has always done. It will evolve.''
According to Technology Review, Leuthardt is not the only one with ambitions for what are known as brain-computer interfaces. Elon Musk founder of Tesla and SpaceX, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has expressed similar dreams.
These plans are all in their early phases and have been shrouded in secrecy, making it hard to assess how much progress has been made, or whether the goals are even slightly realistic.
> Leuthardt, for one, expects he will live to see it. ''At the pace at which technology changes, it’s not inconceivable to think that in a 20-year time frame everything in a cell phone could be put into a grain of rice,'' he says. ''That could be put into your head in a minimally invasive way, and would be able to perform the computations necessary to be a really effective brain-computer interface.''
> ''At the top of the list of things to do is preparing humanity for what's coming. The moment we got early evidence that we could decode intentions,'' Leuthardt says, ''I knew it was on.''
Consequently, Leuthardt founded NeuroLutions, a company aimed at demonstrating that there is a market, for rudimentary devices that link mind and machine, and at beginning, to use the technology to help people.
The device consists of brain-monitoring electrodes that sit on the scalp and are attached to an arm orthosis; it can detect a neural signature for intended movement before the signal reaches the motor area of the brain.
By revealing them, amplifying them, and using them to control a device that moves the paralyzed limb, Leuthardt found he can actually help a patient regain independent control over the limb, more effectively than is possible with any procedure currently on the market.
More importantly, the device can be used without brain surgery.