brain implants and the brain-computer interface is a real technology (March 31, 2013)

Interview with Jeff Stibel, Chairman of Braingate

By Chad Kister

Brain implants are a powerful new technology that actually allows people to communicate using their thoughts, and for people to see what people are seeing, hear what they are hearing and even to place voices into peopleís heads. They have been around for decades, but have advanced enormously in recent years. Now, however, they are being mis-used by the Department of Homeland Security to stop efforts to repeal the Patriot Act and to engage in torture against US citizens.

Paraplegic Matt Naegle was given a brain implant in 2004, which he used to surf the internet. DARPA and the Department of Homeland Security have spent billions of dollars on this technology, raising questions of its more nefarious potentials. In Ohio, two people have reported that brain implants were put in them against their will. With the advancement of this technology, the thought police are real in 2009.

Jeff Stibel is a world-renown expert in brain implants, as the Chairman of Braingate, a company that recently unveiled their Braingate2, in which people can communicate wirelessly with computers just using their thoughts, through what is called a brain-computer interface.  Chad Kister interviewed Stibel by phone, with the audio clips of the interview posted at www.brainimplant.info.  Here is the transcribed interview:

Chad Kister: Whatís your background on brain implants?

Jeff Stibel: I was in a doctoral program at Brown University in brain science. And I have helped to start a handful of companies in the field.

Chad Kister: Is the technology there to read peopleís thoughts?

Jeff Stibel: The technology that I am associated with, Iím the chairman of a company called Braingate, does just that. Thatís exactly what it does. This is a microchip that is implanted in someoneís brain, and we effectively read the thoughts of the person. In our case, what we are trying to do is to control movement. We can interpret that people are trying to move a mouse curser, and then have that mouse curser move, just with their thoughts. You can play videogames on a computer using this technology.

Chad Kister: What is the potential of the brain-computer interface?

Jeff Stibel: The potential of Braingate is absolutely tremendous. For people who are suffering through injury, trauma or otherwise to have the ability to both help and allow them to communicate, but also to help them enable prosthetics, chairs and other devices just through thoughts. It is absolutely tremendous for the handicapped population.

For more fully functional people, the ability to use your thoughts to control electrical devices is really the transformation of science fiction into reality.

Chad Kister: What is the potential to see what people see, like a video-camera, either with a miniature video-camera or through the neurons? Have you heard of that potential?

Jeff Stibel: I have. Again, like everything that is being processed through the brain, vision is processed through electrical and chemical reactions. The ability to actually tap into those electrical connections, similar to what we do through Braingate, is real. That can be used for good or evil, for commercial gain or to help humanity. But the potential is there, it is tremendous.

Chad Kister: What about the ability to hear what people hear?

Jeff Stibel: The same thing exactly. You are talking about electrical impulses. The ability is absolutely real. You can use those for many different purposes. But that is certainly something that is not out of the realm of reality. There is one that is working to make the blind be able to see. You effectively have a brain implant that hooks to what looks like sunglasses. The glasses are actually processing what you normally would be looking at except this person is blind, and then feeds that information through a computer chip directly into the mind, to give that person the sensation that they are actually seeing something, and it works reasonably well.

Can you read peopleís thoughts in words? Say someone thinks "I am going to go to the store." Would there be a way to hear that person think that they are going to do that?

Jeff Stibel: Yes, absolutely, whether you are thinking in words, or symbols or otherwise, in the brain that is all translated into neural activity. You can tap into that neural activity, and uncode it, then you can determine exactly what that thought is.

Chad Kister: What can you decode at this point?

Jeff Stibel: Right now we are still in the very early stages of this technology. And again our technology is being used principally to help paraplegics, locked-in patients gain mobility, and be able to communicate with others. We are not trying to look into their minds to see what they are thinking, we are looking into their minds and help them function better: to help them communicate, help then to move around in their environment.

Chad Kister: What about with Alzheimerís patients?

Jeff Stibel: The potential is there, but a lot less so. Alzheimer is a degenerative disease, so the brain is deteriorating, just as it is with mad cow disease. That would not be a particularly good application for a Braingate technology. Other brain implants, however, are working to help with Alzheimer patients.

Chad Kister: Have you been able to use them so that people with prosthetic arms are able to move them with their thoughts?

Jeff Stibel: We have done research in that realm, and there is research at Duke, MIT, CalTech and Brown right now in animals trials, not yet in human trials. We believe we will be able to get there, and we will be able to control a human prosthetic arm.

Chad Kister: What about with uberveillance? Are you familiar with the term uberveillance?

Jeff Stibel: I am not, No

Chad Kister: It is about being able to monitor people using a brain implant device. The Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security have much more advanced brain implants, and appear to be using them to engage in thought-policing, according to two Ohio victims, both of which were documented to have brain implants. Imagine what it would be like to have people monitor your every thoughts, your every move, even your dreams.

Chad Kister: How are they powered?

Jeff Stibel: It is powered in the same way as any other electrical device is powered, with a battery. It is literally a silicon-based computer chip that ties in either through wires or wirelessly into a computer.

Chad Kister: If itís wirelessly, how would you keep it charged?

Jeff Stibel: There will be a battery in the small system that is in the brain, or just above the surface of the cranium, the skull. And that battery will transmit that information to the computer, which is with a larger battery of course. It needs very, very little power. You can also go and do some research if you go to braingate.com. There is a good amount of information there.

Chad Kister: What about the ability to use electrical power from a personís neurons, or from a fuel cell, so it would last a long time?

Jeff Stibel: Thatís possible. The way the brain generates power and gets its energy is through oxygen and the blood supply. I think weíre a ways away from being able to tap into that. But interesting idea, very interesting idea.

Chad Kister: If it is done wirelessly, how long would the battery last, and how would you charge it?

Jeff Stibel: Years and years and years and years.

Chad Kister: Because it just uses so little power?

Jeff Stibel: You are talking about an implant the size of a small M and M. It is tiny and it uses very little power.

Chad Kister: How far can the wireless frequencies go?

Jeff Stibel: Unknown right now. With the technology thatís out there these days, with Bluetooth or Rf frequencies, it should be a reasonable amount.

Chad Kister: Have you heard about law enforcement with an interest in being able to interrogate people or question someone with their thoughts?

Jeff Stibel: I have.

Chad Kister: Is it the Department of Homeland Security, or which agency have you heard interest from?

Jeff Stibel: I think thereís absolutely interest: there has always been interest. But that is a long ways away. But a lot of the funding in the academic lab comes from government agencies, DARPA, the VA. It is no surprise that there is more broad interest and applications in the defense side and the law enforcement side.

The author is in the process of documenting two cases in which citizens have been interrogated with brain implants against their will. The Department of Homeland Security apparently thinks it can use the Patriot Act to engage in thought policing. This is the most egregious violation of civil liberties on the planet. Imagine not being able to escape. How would one exercise his or her fifth amendment rights to be silent? Imagine 24-7 interrogation, with no place to escape.

This is happening, and the perpetrators, who appear to be police, are betting that people will not understand this technology, so they will get away with it. One of the individuals said that they are trying to send him to a psychiatric ward, because he has been so effective in mobilizing concern for civil liberties protection in the community. He has also been on the forefront in the effort to repeal the Patriot Act. We need greater oversight over the use and potential misuse of brain implants. Above all, they must never be used against someoneís will, as was done in two instances in Ohio.

Chad Kister: How hard is it to transfer the brainís code into a computer interface?

Jeff Stibel: It is incredibly difficult. Itís taken years and years and years of technology advancement to be able to do it. You are basically converting a biological system into a computer system. But fundamentally, the brain computer system -- our neurons -- isnít that different than a computer system. So fundamentally, in theory, it is fairly straightforward. But in practice it has turned out to be incredibly difficult.

Chad Kister: Do you have to go to different portions of a personís brain to get someoneís thoughts, or what someone sees, or what someone hears?

Jeff Stibel: Neuronal mapping has been around for the better part of 100 years, and they are getting better and better and better. Depending on what you are trying to do, you have to put the computer chip in the right spot to be able to read the right type of neurons. The brain is always active. You want to get as close to the motor-active, the hyperactive neurons as you can. If you are trying to analyze, leverage or interpret motion in the brain, you need to put the electrodes as close to the neurons that are interpreting motion as possible. The same is true for speech, vision or anything else in the brain.

Chad Kister: Where would you put an implant to monitor someoneís vision:

Jeff Stibel: The vision part. Itís called V-1: Itís a part of the cortex.

Chad Kister: What about to monitor thoughts:

Jeff Stibel: Everything thatís happening is someoneís thoughts.

It depends on what youíre talking about. The pre-frontal cortex which is closer to the front part of your brain is generally someoneís decision-making center.

Chad Kister: What about for hearing?

Jeff Stibel: Again, this all comes down to where the neurons are more active in the brain, that is where you put the implant. Where the neurons light up for hearing is where you want that chip to go.

Chad Kister: How many neurons do you need to connect to make a Braingate function?

Jeff Stibel: Surprisingly few. It can be as few as a couple dozen up to; theyíve measured a few thousands, and it did not seem to make much difference. The level of complexity is much greater in terms of implanting the system (when more neurons are connected). They did it with monkeys, versus what we did with Braingate, which is a single chip. But you need to activate just a few neurons. Again because they light-up in a network effect, theyíre all associated, so you just need to tap into the overall connection and activity in the right spot. You donít need to get them all.

Chad Kister: How long does it take to put one in someone?

Jeff Stibel: It is reasonably quick, the surgery is done within a single day.

Chad Kister: Does it take an atomic microscope, or how would you actually see to attach a neuron?

Jeff Stibel: You are really looking for the placement (of the implant). It is brain surgery. You lift the skull, you go to the spot (and push the spikes attached to the implant into the brain). Again, I am not a neural surgeon. It is a lot more complicated in practice. Other than the fact that it is brain surgery, it is not a highly complex surgery.

Chad Kister: How are the neurons attached to the wires?

Jeff Stibel: Neurons are absolutely tiny. The placement basically: you are looking at an electrode, a microchip the size of a paper eraser and on them a hundred spikes. There are a hundred spikes is the best way to describe them. You push those spikes into the brain. There are a hundred billion neurons in the brain, with a hundred trillion connections. It is hard to miss them. The spikes are designed to feed into those neurons. And then from there either you have a wireless connection, as in Braingate 2, which is what we just got FDA approved. Or in an earlier version -- you may have seen it on 60 Minutes when we were featured -- the 60 Minutes version was a system that literally connected your brain to the computer with some fairly heavy elaborate wiring.

Chad Kister: What about the potential to advance people such as a politician in a debate?

Jeff Stibel: It is very much science fiction at this point. That said, this is something that Sergey Brin and Larry Page have been fond of for years: these are the founders of Google. There is the ability to connect all of the worldís information to the brain through the internet. So if you have a Braingate2, and you can connect to the internet, you can gain access to all of that information.

Chad Kister: How many years off do you think that is?

Jeff Stibel: In limited instances, you can do that now. They can log on to a browser, and surf with a limited capacity. But in terms of doing this for the masses, you are talking about years and years. Because it has to be safe, it has to be bulletproof. And it has to be simple. This does involve brain surgery.

Chad Kister: What are the dangers of brain surgery and putting in a brain implant?

Jeff Stibel: With brain surgery, if something happens to your brain, you can be in serious trouble.

Chad Kister? What about some of the potentially more nefarious possibilities, such as if someone were to put this in someone against their consent?

Jeff Stibel: It is always a possibility or a risk as with any new technologies. When they invented the wheel, as good of an invention that that was, there was the risk that it could do harm, to be used for tanks and to wheel in cannons. There isnít a technology out there that canít be used for good or for evil. It depends on the intentions of both the inventors and the people who use them. There is far too much good that this technology can offer to think about or concern yourself with the potential harm.

Chad Kister Conclusion

Having found two people so far that have been implanted with brain implants against their will, along with the interest among law enforcement agencies to be thought police means that people need to be educated that this technology exists. The cart-blanche powers of the Patriot Act appears to have allowed for police to place these into people against their will, in a gross violation of the U.S. Constitution, which trumps the Patriot Act.

The inherent secrecy of the Patriot Act, with National Security Letters used to silence any potential leak of information, can keep the thought police safe from public scrutiny. Safeguards, such as methods to detect brain implants are critical. With the use of these to try to make people look like they are insane, to discredit and lock them up, we must concern ourselves with the implication that our thoughts are no longer sacred, unless we reign in the misuse of this technology.