computer interfaces for more than a decade but have had little
success in turning the technology into a viable treatment for
paralyzed patients (see “Implanting Hope,” March 2005). The
population of potential patients is limited—at least compared
with some of the other conditions being targeted by medical-device startups competing for venture capital. (Roughly
40,000 people in the U.S. have complete quadriplegia.) And
most of the tasks that could be accomplished using such an
interface can already be handled with noninvasive devices.
Even most locked-in patients can still blink an eye or perhaps
wiggle a finger. Methods that rely on this residual movement
can be used to input data or move a wheelchair without the
danger, recovery time, or psychological wherewithal involved
in implanting electrodes directly on one’s cortex.
So after their initial fund-raising e;orts failed, Leuthardt
and Schalk set their sights on a more modest goal.
Unexpectedly, they found that many patients continued
to recover additional function even after the orthosis was
removed—extending to, for instance, fine motor control of
their fingers. Often, it turned out, all the patients needed was a
little push. Then, once new neural pathways were established,
the brain continued to remodel and expand them so that they
could convey more complex motor commands to the hand.
The initial success Leuthardt expects in these patients,
he hopes, will encourage some to move on to a more robust
invasive system. “A couple years down the road you might
say, ‘You know what? For that noninvasive version, you can
get this much benefit, but I think that now, given the science
that we know and everything, we can give you this much more
benefit,’” he says. “We can enhance your function even more.”
Leuthardt is so eager for the world to share his passion
for the technology’s potentially transformative e;ects that he
has also sought to engage the public through art. In addition
to writing his novels and play, he is working on a podcast and
You Tube series with a fellow neurosurgeon, in which the two
discuss technology and philosophy over co;ee and doughnuts.
In Leuthardt’s first book, RedDevil 4, one character uses
his “cortical prosthetic” to experience hiking the Himalayas
while sitting on his couch. Another, a police detective, confers
telepathically with a colleague about how to question a murder
suspect standing right in front of them. Every character has
instant access to all the knowledge in the world’s libraries—
can access it as quickly as a person can think any spontaneous
thought. No one ever has to be alone, and our bodies no longer
limit us. On the flip side, everyone’s brain is vulnerable to
computer viruses that can turn people into psychopaths.
Leuthardt acknowledges that at present, we still lack the
power to record and stimulate the number of neurons it would
take to replicate these visions. But he claims his conversations
with some Silicon Valley investors have only fueled his
optimism that we’re on the brink of an innovation explosion.
Schalk is a little less sanguine. He’s skeptical that Facebook,
Musk, and others are adding much of their own to the quest
for a better interface.
“They are not going to do anything di;erent than the
scientific community by itself,” Schalk says. “Maybe something
is going to come of it, but it’s not like they have this new thing
that nobody else has.”
Schalk says it’s “very, very obvious” that in the next five to
10 years some form of brain-computer interface will be used
to rehabilitate victims of strokes, spinal cord injuries, chronic
pain, and other disorders. But he compares the current
recording techniques to the IBM computers of the 1960s,
saying that they are now “archaic.” For the technology to reach
its true long-term potential, he believes, a new sort of brain-
scanning technology will be needed—something that can read
far more neurons at once.
“What you really want is to be able to listen to the brain
and talk to the brain in a way that the brain cannot distinguish
from the way it communicates internally, and we can’t do that
right now,” Schalk says. “We really don’t know how to do it at
this point. But it’s also obvious to me that it is going to happen.
And if and when that happens, our lives are going to change,
and our lives are going to change in a way that is completely
Where and when the breakthroughs will come from is
unclear. After decades of research and progress, many of the
same technological challenges remain daunting. Still, the
progress in neuroscience and computer hardware and software
makes the outcome—at least to true believers—inevitable.
At the very least, says Leuthardt, the buzz emanating
from Silicon Valley has generated “real excitement and real
thinking about brain-computer interfaces being a practical
reality.” That, he says, is “something we haven’t seen before.”
And though he acknowledges that if this turns out to be
hype it could “set the field back a decade or two,” nothing,
he believes, will stop us from reaching the ultimate goal: a
technology that will allow us to transcend the cognitive and
physical limitations previous generations of humankind have
taken for granted.
“It’s going to happen,” he insists. “This has the potential to
alter the evolutionary direction of the human race.”
Adam Piore is the author of The Body Builders: Inside
the Science of the Engineered Human, a book about
bioengineering published last March.