Crackpot tech: Direct brain interfaces

Ready to think away that backlog of IT tasks to a more manageable stack? Or to get a handle on the hot new IT skill without lifting a finger? If scientists are successful, such power could be within IT’s grasp, as the computers of the future will plug directly into your brain.

Technological telepathy has been the stuff of science fiction for years. In the 1957 film Forbidden Planet, for example, alien machines could bring any thought to life, while characters in the more recent Matrix trilogy bypassed years of tedious education via instant brain uploads. Although such tricks are a ways off, experimental brain-computer interfaces exist today.

For now, the goal of most direct brain interface research is to develop assistive technologies for the physically disabled. Researchers at Brown University, for example, have created a brain implant that allows quadriplegic patients to move a mouse cursor around a computer screen using thought alone. And in a separate experiment conducted at Boston University, scientists have been able to recreate audible sounds by processing data gathered from the speech centers of the brain of a paralyzed man, with what they claim is 80 percent accuracy.

Mind reading it isn’t -- not yet, anyway. But our understanding of the electrical workings of the brain has advanced so rapidly in recent years that we’ve scarcely had time to ponder the ethical questions raised by these new technologies, let alone which enterprise tasks we’d dream of gearing them toward.

Few would argue against using high tech to enhance the quality of life of the disabled; cochlear implants that interface directly with auditory nerves, for example, are now routinely used to treat total deafness. But what if similar technology could be used to enhance the hearing of normal, healthy people to superhuman levels? What if future implants could enhance cognition using microprocessors, to create a kind of “human calculator”? Would it be moral to plug a super-calculating admin into a server to monitor financial transactions? These and similar questions have spawned an entire, new field of philosophy, which New York Times columnist William Safire has dubbed "neuroethics."

And that’s to say nothing of the implications should we ever gain the ability to plug our brains directly into the Internet. Imagine waking up in the morning to a headful of spam or finding out that your “little black book” has been phished by the person sitting next to you on the subway.

Advancing the direct brain technology to the point of feasibility in corporate settings is one thing. Governance and privacy concerns within and outside the corporate context are quite another. Don’t expect to be thinking away your IT to-do list anytime soon.

-- Neil McAllister

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