To Neural Implant or Not To Neural Implant… That is the Question

Brain implants are a staple of science fiction, especially cyberpunk fiction like Neuromancer, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Matrix. Personally, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of computer-brain interfaces since I was a kid. I remember seeing a clip from an old TV show—I think it was Ripley’s Believe it or Not—where they hooked a guy up to a machine that had a grid of light dots and he was able to “see” then using the wires they fed into his brain through his optic nerve. Of course, I saw it years after the show ended and I kept thinking, well, couldn’t we shrink that down and improve the resolution?

To be fair, the brain-hard drive also sounds pretty awesome. What I wouldn’t give to be able to save shit so I wouldn’t forget it. I mean, am I right people? I’m not sure about the Cut-Out-Chip from Neuromancer though. I drove for Uber for a little while and my car got trashed over the few months I did it. I can’t EVEN imagine what people would do if you rented your body out. Ugh…<Shiver!>

I bring this up because there are some researchers actually working to make brain implants a reality. As with many things, it’s starting with medicine and trying to help make people better. In this case, we’re talking about depression. In 2003, Emory University researcher Helen Mayberg started working on her ideas of treatment for people with severe depression by implanting electrodes into their brains. Her initial tests were promising. Unfortunately, when they moved on to a bigger test, the project failed rather miserably.

What gives me hope is that, when the project came to an end, several of the patients actually requested to keep their implants because they felt it was helping them.

Look, we know that the human brain operates with electrical impulses. I honestly think that it’s only a matter of time before we are able to map that system out and “hack” into how it works. We could have optical implants for the eyes, memory backups and even whole new senses invented that we’ve never thought of before. Can you imagine making it so you can feel the level of UV light? Or how about being able to sense magnetic fields? Or even the end-all-be-all of brain implants… Direct neural connection to the Internets!

Think about that for a second, hacking the human brain to make us better. Don’t want to be addicted to cigarettes? Boom, stop by for a little neural code. Want to change your eating habits? Boom… Just download the latest patch. Suffering from a clinical depression? Sounds like a firmware update! We could feasibly remove every neural and psychological problem ever. Maybe we could even rewire the brain to bypass damaged areas in people who have brain damage.

This is all wonderful…That is until the dark side of neural reprogramming hits the streets: Hackers. And not the filesharing/BitTorrent kind of hackers, either. We’re talking Russian Mafia, Chinese Triad, North Korean government agents or even just the jackass troll 15-year-old down the street who writes seriously nasty pieces of code to take your money or just create havoc and chaos.

Think it’s cool getting that update to get rid of your nicotine or gambling addiction? How about a bit of neural malware making you instantly addicted to Meth. Relieved when you no longer desired sugar and fat in massive amounts just to get through the day? How about a computer/brain virus that gives you the uncontrollable urge to eat deep-fried butter with jalapenos with a deep-seated loathing of anything spicy, just to mess with you.

Or how about this. You finally feel the weight lifted off your shoulders of living with intense clinical depression for 30 years. Too bad there was a hidden bit of code in that update that sends you into Red Bull-fueled, machine gun shooting spree at a daycare center.

Sound crazy? Maybe. But maybe not. The human mind is a rather fragile thing. A few nudges or programmed suggestions in the right direction and you or I could become the evil Mirror Universe version of ourselves.

On second thought, maybe getting a brain implant really isn’t the best idea. If we humans can be boiled down into electrical sparks and bits of code, are we creating more problems than we can handle? The thing is, this technology is fairly realistic. It’s just an extension of what we already know.

And suddenly, I see a much darker, much more dangerous cyberpunk future for my grandchildren. Maybe this is just another case of humanity creating a new technology long before we’re actually mature enough to use it.

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