Paul Lachine

Man, Machine, and in Between

Advances in neurosciences, together with miniaturization of microelectronic devices – such as cochlear implants for the deaf – are erasing the line where devices end and people begin. But, although the technologies and situations that brain-machine interfacing devices present might seem new and unfamiliar, they pose few new ethical challenges.

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY ­– We are so surrounded by gadgetry nowadays that it is sometimes hard to tell where devices end and people begin. From computers and scanners to mobile devices, an increasing number of humans spend much of their conscious lives interacting with the world through electronics, the only barrier between brain and machine being the senses — sight, sound, and touch — through which humans and devices interface. But remove those senses from the equation, and electronic devices can become our eyes, ears and even arms and legs, taking in the world around us and interacting with it through software and hardware.

This is no mere prediction. Brain-machine interfaces are already clinically well established – for example, in restoring hearing through cochlear implants. And patients with end-stage Parkinson’s disease can be treated with deep brain stimulation (DBS). Current experiments on neural prosthetics point to the enormous future potential of similar interventions, whether retinal or brain-stem implants for the blind or brain-recording devices for controlling prostheses.

Non-invasive brain-machine interfaces based on electroencephalogram recordings have restored the communication skills of paralyzed patients. Animal research and some human studies suggest that full control of artificial limbs in real time could further offer the paralyzed an opportunity to grasp or even to stand and walk on brain-controlled, artificial legs, albeit likely through invasive means, with electrodes implanted directly in the brain.

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