For all its discussion of algorithms and action potentials, Malcolm Gay’s book about the complicated, competitive world of neuroprosthetics boils down to what this emerging brain science can do for people — and that may be quite a lot.
In one of Gay’s anecdotes, a man whose spinal cord was severed, leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down, learns to control a computer cursor with his mind. In another, a woman whose motor system mysteriously ceased functioning 15 years earlier uses a robot arm to play rock-paper-scissors just by thinking of the gestures.
An ambitious, well-researched book, “The Brain Electric” illustrates the field’s exciting potential not just to aid the disabled but one day, perhaps, to enhance human abilities altogether. Gay charts the field’s development from the earliest attempts to restore lost motor function (going back to the third century, when Roman general Marcus Sergius commissioned an iron fist after losing his hand in the Second Punic War) to the tantalizing prospects of the future.
These prospects are, by turns, miraculous and terrifying. On the one hand, brain-computer interfaces could give unprecedented freedom to people with locked-in syndrome, who — usually because of a brain-stem stroke or advanced ALS — retain consciousness but are unable to move. With a device that decodes the firing of their neurons, they’d be able to operate a computer or even, one researcher hopes, a computerized exoskeleton, guided purely by thought, that would move as dexterously as their bodies once had.
On the other hand, technology may someday allow people to link their brains together in order to share information more efficiently — a possibility that, as Gay notes, appeals to the military as a way to enable soldiers and spies to communicate quasi-telepathically, without giving away their locations by speaking.
And it appears possible that even healthy people might someday have the option of merging their brains with computers, augmenting their ability to do high-level math or enabling them to perceive infrared light, for example. But these possibilities also elicit a host of ethical questions: What happens when we allow someone or something else inside our brain? Do we open ourselves up to mind reading, or mind control? As one of Gay’s sources muses, “As we expand our capabilities, we potentially expand our limitations and vulnerabilities. At some point, are we going to be able to be hacked?’’
Some of this ground has been covered before, however, and although “The Brain Electric” goes into greater depth than previous journal articles and news reports, it uses a piecemeal approach that may leave readers grasping for the bigger picture.
Gay, who is an arts reporter for the Globe, focuses much of his attention on the often-bitter rivalries between scientists vying for the same funding (the biggest source of which is the US military) and competing to be first with the technology. But moving back and forth between researchers poses an organizational challenge; information is sometimes repeated, and at other times the order of events becomes murky.
Still, the profiles of the researchers can be as fascinating as those of the people who stand to benefit from their discoveries. Neuroscientists, of course, are only human and prone to some of the same foibles as the rest of us, including outsize egos and ambitions that make collaboration a challenge. Sometimes they overpromise and under-deliver.
Often, this mismatch of expectations and reality is not the researchers’ fault. A huge stumbling block for the field is funding, and those looking at the cost of research and development find that there simply aren’t enough quadriplegics and completely paralyzed individuals to guarantee a profit.
Other stumbling blocks, however, lie in the uncharted folds of our gray matter. Even when technology works brilliantly on paper, the brain still presents enough unknowns to thwart the best-designed device. The woman controlling the robot arm with her mind, for example, couldn’t look at the arm while it grasped an object, or it would freeze. She could only make it work with her eyes closed. There is still more to learn about how our minds work, it seems. And although it may stymie research, there’s something comforting in knowing that even the most advanced algorithm is no match for the intricacies of the human brain. At least for now.
THE BRAIN ELECTRIC: The Dramatic High-Tech Race to Merge Minds and Machines
By Malcolm Gay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 265 pp., $26
Jennifer Latson is writing a book about Williams syndrome. Follow her on Twitter @JennieLatson.