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UNHRC deliberates on brain implants, neurotechnology, as Neuralink raises

Professor: "We need a new human right to cognitive liberty. Neural sensors will become part of our everyday technology and a part of how we interact with that technology. We have a moment to get this right before that happens..."

A brain sensor. Credit: David Baillot/UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

When Elon Musk isn't remixing the bird app or building spaceships, he is trying to "replace" a part of human skills with a "smartwatch". The Musk-backed brain chip company Neuralink was approved for human trials by the FDA in June (a decision greeted by one advocacy organisation as "not an acquittal of Neuralink’s well-documented track record of animal cruelty and sloppy scientific studies"), and that has, potentially, made brain-chipped humans a thing of the near-future.

(Neuralink this Monday announced that it has raised $280 million in Series D led by the Founders' Fund, the VC fund co-founded by Peter Thiel.)

Neurotechnology has been around for the last five decades, but recently, investments in the field have multiplied -- taking the sector's valuation close to a quarter of a trillion dollars.

See also: Brain chips will become "more common than pacemakers", says investor, as startup raises $10m

Given the multiple surveillance, cyber-biosecurity and cyberthreats that come with the technology, experts and governments are wary. A week-long committee session of the UNHRC, starting this week may provide some international clarity.

As part of the Human Rights Advisory Council's session, eighteen independent experts will work on the set mandate "Impact, opportunities and challenges of neurotechnology with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights."

Commenting on the need to get regulation right before brain chips become available, Duke University bioscience Professor Nita Farahany, stated that "We need a new human right to cognitive liberty,"

“Neural sensors will become part of our everyday technology and a part of how we interact with that technology.”

“We have a moment to get this right before that happens, both by becoming aware of what’s happening and by making critical choices we need to make now to decide how we use the technology in ways that are good and not misused or oppressive," she added in an interview with The Guardian.

Recent technological advances in brain chips have focused on getting the Brain-Chip Interface (BCI) right. The interface, in theory, will allow humans to engage with external devices without any tactile contact.

Promising prototypes include an electrode laden nanochip that can be sewn onto or latches on to the brain surface, depending on the manner of implantation.

While Neuralink boasts of a completely robotic surgery that gets the chip in "to enhance cognitive functioning," competitors such as Synchron have varied implantation methods, including via a catheter and using the jugular vein as a "biological USB cord."

The key applications of brain chips are in med-tech. The idea is that the chip can build a bridge and restore lost cognitive functioning, treating ailments such paralysis, blindness, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.  

However, it is unlikely that neurotechnology companies will remain limited to building medical grade devices. Musk has been explicit -- he wants the Neuralink to be a mass device (hence, the smartwatch analogy), and eventually allow humans to mesh their consciousness with AI.

"We need to merge with AI...Some high bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence,"

“I created [Neuralink] specifically to address the AI symbiosis problem, which I think is an existential threat,” he was quoted saying.

Not all brain-machine interfaces are invasive. Some researchers are exploring the use of "tattoo sensors, e-skin, and e-textrodes" – but as a recent research paper notes, "obtaining adequate contact using flat-surface electrodes on the hairy and uneven occipital scalp area is particularly challenging."

Regardless, there "vast potential for future robotics, bionic prosthetics, neurogaming, electronics, and autonomous vehicles" a recent piece in "Applied Nano Materials" emphasised.