First, there was the car; then the automatic car; then the self-driving car… But watch out Tesla, because there’s a new kid on the block, one that reads your mind. Yep, let that sink in for a minute.
On the 7 September 2021, at Munich’s IAA Mobility 2021 vehicle showcase, Mercedes-Benz promoted its ambitious and, let’s face it, pretty ridiculously vision for its new concept car, a model which has an array of high-tech, futuristic features—akin to a sci-fi novelist’s wet dream. But there’s one particular feature that really takes the biscuit: mind-reading. No seriously, the model includes a brain-computer interface (BCI) headset capable of converting a driver’s neural activity into real-time console commands like temperature control, interior lighting customisations and AC speed. Because reaching over to flick on the air con while driving isn’t the most first-world problem you’ve ever heard of.
Although this concept car first reared its head during last year’s Consumer Electronics Expo (CES) in Las Vegas, this is the first time car fanatics have heard of it since—with Mercedez announcing it’s come via a partnership with Disney. Seriously, the Disney—as if ESPN, The History Channel and pretty much every millennial’s childhood wasn’t enough, they’re now branching into the automotive market.
It’s said that the ‘AVT’ in the model’s name stands for ‘Advanced Vehicle Transformation’. Although vague—I’m still trying to work out what that actually means—it does play into the futuristic vibe Disney and Mercedes are obviously tapping into. Sorry to burst the bubble but—although to some degree, the concept car’s brain-computer interface is functional—you won’t be cruising down the motorway using just your brain anytime soon.
In an official press release, it was stated that the concept car’s design is “similar to the neuronal connection between the Na’vi and the nature in the visionary Hollywood blockbuster Avatar.” The partnership has landed the car with the name AVTR… Someone needs to have a word with the Mercedes’ marketing team—‘Avacar’ was literally right there in front of them.
And that’s a good thing… First, the real-world safety of this car, once on the roads, would be sketchy at best and outright dangerous at worse. More importantly though, as we’ve seen with Elon Musk’s Neuralink, brain-computer interface technology is ethically messy, with many risks involved concerning an individual’s digital data.
That doesn’t mean that BCIs don’t exist outside of PR stunts and conceptual models from multinational corporations. And although the branding team behind this futuristic, science fiction-esque concept car may want you to think otherwise, brain computer-interface technology has actually been around for quite some time now.
In fact, this year, researchers at BrainGate—an organisation that develops BCIs out of Brown University in an attempt to aid individuals suffering from neurological disorders—successfully demonstrated the first instances of high-bandwidth wireless interfacing between human test subjects and a tablet computer. Researchers suggest the technology could aid the reliable restoration of communication and mobility for people with paralysis.
All this goes to show that, although as cool as the concept car may be, there are significantly more impactful and humanitarian purposes for using BCI. I respect the designers for coming up with such a sleek and eloquent design, I’ll give them that. It does look like something straight out of Avatar—but that’s where my interest ends. As for me, I’ll keep cruising in my very modest Hyundai, even if I have to turn on the AC by hand (not brain).
Forget Space X or Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s ambitious neurotechnology project has just made a breakthrough akin to your wildest sci-fi fantasy: a monkey is now able to play Pong solely with its mind. The demonstration by the company Neuralink is a prime example of a brain-machine interface in action. With human trials set to start later this year, what does this mean for humanity as we know it?
Last year, the company successfully implanted a chip into a pig’s brain to measure visual information and sensory data from its snout. Last month, the company successfully implanted a chip into a monkey’s brain so it could play Pong—the two-dimensional sports game that simulates table tennis—using only its mind. It’s safe to say Neuralink is making (brain) waves within the emerging neurotechnology industry.
It all started with a coin-sized disc, called a ‘link’, which is implanted by a precision surgical robot into the monkey’s brain, connecting thousands of micro threads from the chip to neurons responsible for controlling motion. The nine-year-old monkey called Pager—presumably unaware that it’s the centrepiece of a scientific breakthrough and internet fame—had two Neurolink devices put on each side of his brain six weeks before. Pager was then taught to use a joystick to move a cursor to targets on a screen in exchange for a banana smoothie. What could possibly go wrong, right?
The ‘link’ device then records the monkey’s neuron activity while he interacts with the joystick and cursor. The narrator of the video explains this is only possible due to thousands of tiny wires implanted into Pager’s motor cortex—the part of the brain that coordinates hand and arm movements. The data is then fed into a decoder algorithm, predicting Pager’s intended hand movements in real-time.
Neuralink claims that once the decoder is calibrated, the monkey is free to control the cursor without relying on the joystick—essentially controlling the cursor with only its mind. The joystick is then deactivated as the video shows the monkey playing Pong with, and only with, its mind. It’s proof of the astonishing scientific advances we humans can achieve—Pager is able to play Pong telepathically with more accuracy than I ever could on my 2008 flip phone.
To put it bluntly, it’s too early to tell. However, there is reason to believe we’re witnessing the emergence of a new technology that could have a serious impact on society. Bearing in mind that this is mostly hypothetical, aside from Pager’s ability to play a video game telepathically, which is now objective science—let’s start with the positives.
Neuralink claims that the technology could assist people who are paralysed from brain or spinal injuries, giving them the ability to control computerised devices with their minds—similar to how Pager was able to control a cursor with just his brain. If all goes to plan, it would be an invaluable way for paraplegics, quadriplegics or victims of strokes to live a free and autonomous life. The ‘link’ chip might also be able to connect with other technology, for instance, making prosthetic limbs feel ‘real’.
This experiment’s success also touches upon how the technology could, theoretically, be a valuable treatment for psychological and neurological conditions like depression or addiction—even claiming to restore senses for those who are blind or deaf. This is all very up there but there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic of how developments in neurotechnology could drastically change medicine as we know it, and for the good.
It’s worth noting the positives go beyond therapeutic value too. The technology could offer a faster way of interacting with computers—we wouldn’t be limited to the QWERTY keyboard anymore, instead, we’d be able to send messages at the speed of thought. Granted, this would make being ghosted by your Tinder match that extra bit painful.
Scientists have also theorised that the technology could connect brains to the cloud. This would essentially change human intelligence as we know it—an individual’s ‘native’ intelligence could be augmented by accessing cloud-based artificial intelligence. It sounds whacky now but imagine explaining Google to someone in the early 90s.
Alright, I’m going to burst the positive bubble here: criminals have, and most likely always will adapt to new technology in order to exploit the vulnerable. It’s happened with credit cards, with the internet, and it even happened with COVID-19—there’s no reason to believe that once this technology is mainstream, it’ll be invincible to those with bad intentions.
Scientists warn that without “bulletproof security”, hackers could access implanted chips, causing malfunctions or misdirections of their actions. Similar to that Wallace and Gromit episode where an evil penguin hacked the robotic trousers to steal from a bank, staging Wallace in the process—only with much darker consequences. A device vulnerable to such actions could be fatal for the disabled individuals the technology serves to benefit.
It’s an ethical and philosophical issue that still plagues the neurotechnology field to this day. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, some have raised concerns that developments in AI working through a brain-machine interface could take control of the host’s brain through nanotechnology. The very man himself, Elon Musk, has previously warned that AI poses an existential threat to humanity—claiming AI is set to overtake humans in less than five years.
It’s a tricky ethical minefield to manoeuvre. And if animal testing wasn’t unethical enough, human trials are set to start at the beginning of this year. Scientists have warned that we must devote enough time and effort to building safeguards. However, if implemented safely, the technology could bring enormous positives to society.
As for me: I’m a writer, not a scientist, there’s little value I can add to the discussion other than what I’ve already said. I guess it’s a waiting game—if in twenty years I can order a pizza just by thinking (and my brain isn’t hacked by cybercriminals), I’ll be happy knowing science has done its job.