Re-engineering the Mind-Body Connection – with Kyle Munkittrick

Like so many scientists and science-loving scholars, Kyle Munkittrick had an interest in science and science-fiction at a young age; however, he didn’t actually consider pursuing “science as a career” until he entered NYU and found a program that basically allowed students to construct their own course of study.  Munkittrick took a class on the transhumanist movement, a crystallizing move that gradually shifted his focus to the field of bioethics.  Now a Bioethicist and Affiliate Scholar at the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), Munkittrick writes on topics for various publications in the field of human enhancement and bioethics, including maintaining his own blog at popbioethics.com.

In making a global transition to transhumanism, Munkittrick sees the movement in emerging technologies developed for those with disabilities as being one of the greatest catalysts towards an authentic realization of a “transhumanist” reality.  “A lot of the technology that’s being built right now…a lot more attention is being put on how it can help those who aren’t able, the way you and I are.”  Individuals with physical disabilities can increasingly leverage technologies that help them better operate in a world that has not always been so accommodating.  And those who do not have disabilities are also leveraging some of these technologies on different scales; for example, the voice-command app Siri is now a staple on iPhones and Androids.

This same idea has applied to the realm of education since the passing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which ensures interventions and accommodations for students with special education needs.  Educators, especially those who work with students with specific learning and other types of disabilities, use a “universal learning design” approach, which includes incorporating approaches and technologies that can help all students learn to their greatest potential, with the assistance of necessary accommodations. Technologies that include voice-to-speech recognition, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, help those students with disabilities, but can also be used with benefit by students without disabilities.  The same type of universal design approach might be increasingly incorporated into the field of artificial technology as the industry progresses.

Neurotechnologies offer the potential for paradigm-shifting realities in the mind-body realm.  Brain-computer interface (BCI) systems offer the capability to repair and enhance human physical and mental functions.  There are two types of BCIs – invasive systems, electrode arrays that are implanted in the brain and communicate with neural signals; and non-invasive BCI systems that intercept signals outside the head with scalp electroencephalography.  Munkittrick describes how this technology is currently being engineered with exoskeletons.  Ekso Bionics, a California-based company and pioneer in the field of robotic exoskeletsons, which has had success in helping paraplegics to walk again.  In 2012, the company shipped EksoTM, the first commercialized robotic exoskeleton for use in rehabilitative and medical facilities.  A related and even more ambitious goal has been set by Brazilian Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, who in 2010 pledged to create a brain-controlled robotic body suit that will allow a paralyzed person to step onto the field during the opening ceremony of the 2014 World Cup and, aided by an exoskeleton operated by implanted electrodes in the brain, kick a soccer ball.

The interface being developed by Dr. Nicolelis uses implanted electrodes to interface with neuronal signals.  He and his research team at Duke University are currently using monkeys as test agents, and as of February 2013 had already raised the number of captured neuronal electric impulses from a previous 100 to 500; using using four of these electrode arrays has allowed the team to record from almost 2,000 brain neurons in an individual monkey.  Nicolelis envisions this number rising to 30,000 neurons in a prospective human patient.  Another developmental leap accomplished by Nicolelis’ team has been the development of tactile feedback within this BCI system.  In 2011, his team demonstrated a neural prosthesis that allowed monkeys to experience an artificial sense of touch.  Nicolelis and many other scientists emphasize sensory feedback, which entails a “closed loop” brain-machine-brain interface system, as a key development in the BCI technology’s success.

While some scientists in the field view Nicolelis’ attempts as an overly-ambitious promise that throws caution to the wind, brain-machine interface is nonetheless a rapidly-evolving field.  The Brain-Machine Interface Systems Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, which was the granting partner behind the company Ekso Bionics, is a leader in technology that transforms “thought into action” and “sensation into perception”.  Another recent and frequently publicized case is associated with researchers at University of Pittsburgh.  In 2012, a research team implanted 96 electrodes into the motor cortex of a Tetraplegic woman.  The electrodes, able to detect the firing of neurons in the motor cortex and transmit those signals to an external processor, allowed the woman to control a robotic arm in three dimensions of translation, three dimensions of orientation, and one dimension of grasping.  As reported by the journal Nature in April 2012 and shared in a Brown University press release, similar feats were accomplished with two tetraplegic patients through the BrainGate2 collaboration of researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

There is also great interest by scientists and investors in moving brain-computer-interface products into the mainstream.  In a New York Times blog post, Nick Bilton mentions a few companies already marketing related technologies.  NeuroSky, based in San Jose, California, sells a Bluetooth-enabled headset that monitors brain waves and allows people to play concentration-based games on computers and smartphones.  Emotiv, another neuro-engineering company, sells headsets that operate based on user-trained mental commands to control customized computer applications and games.  At present, these technologies use scalp electroencephalography, which is not nearly as effective in communicating between the mind and external devices as is the more invasive implanted electrodes.

As with any technology, there remain ethical concerns, and the potential benefits must continue to be weighed against risks.  In an article written by Dr. Jose L. Contreras-Vidal, director of the Laboratory for Noninvasive Brain-Machine Interface Systems at the University of Houston, Texas, he notes that questions of personality and identity may result from alterations in behavior triggered by BCI.  These are important questions not only as it relates to preserving personal identity agency but also as it applies to future public policy and legal issues.  While invasive BCI technologies are primarily being used to aid those with disabilities, the potential for these technologies to be developed for the general public requires a much broader and far-reaching moratorium on the implications of enhanced cognition, perception and behavior across societal and cultural boundaries.

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