Book: The Brain Electric

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The brain electric: The dramatic high-tech race to merge minds and machines
by Malcolm Gay

Text Publishing (2015)

Digitising and transporting the neural activity of the brain has long been a theme in science fiction. Don’t think so? How else do we explain the run of  “body swap” comedies in the ’80s and the serious sci-fi dramas of the last few years that deal with transplanting someone’s consciousness into a new body via a machine?

By one reckoning, all we are, think, see, feel and dream is the expression of collections of bio-electrical sparks. And any attempt to untangle it – in order to manage our mental health or teleport our thoughts to a robot or alien – must start with equipment that can isolate and translate each individual spark.

The Brain Electric reveals that we might be closer to doing this than we think. As a Boston Globe arts reporter (of all things), Malcolm Gay has collected stories from across the front lines of brain/electronics interfaces, and his book makes for inspiring reading.

So far, digitising brain signals into binary code is in its early stages. It usually involves planting electrodes into a brain and the readings are crude.

But if you’ve seen news stories in the last couple of years about quadriplegic people moving robot arms to drink coffee just by thinking about it, then you can see the possibilities.

Gay starts his story with the example of a pioneering neurological surgeon and biomedical engineer who implants electrodes into the brain of a severe epilepsy patient to try and quiet the storm of neural activity overshadowing the normal patterns.

The Brain Electric then describes digital interfaces or transmission systems that could transform areas of our body that have gone wrong because of the foibles of biology. Imagine a prosthetic limb that delivers the sensation of touch to the brain, for example.

Millions of dollars in funding for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US and promising animal studies are also part of Gay’s story. Both have contributed to a better understanding of how computers can communicate with the body. As Gay explains, principles such as Moore’s Law, better materials science and the breakneck pace of our understanding about the brain are all going to take us into a more connected future than most people have imagined. 

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