I stumbled across this article on Vice News that I find truly fascinating. The article’s title is a bit long-winded by journalism standards, but There Is Now a Brain Implant that Can Control Emotions Wirelessly discusses a truly interesting, and potentially troubling, idea.
Apparently, a group of researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine, the University of Illinois and the University of Colorado at Boulder have collaborated on a method to alter brain chemistry, and therefore emotions, mechanically. The result is a brain implant the size of a human hair that can alter brain chemistry via a wireless signal. Tests in mice have demonstrated that researchers could manipulate both motor control and reward circuitry in the brain. These are some of the same responses which can be achieved in the brain through electroshock therapy (which obviously is very unpleasant and can have dangerous side effects) or through pharmaceuticals or recreational drugs (which also have very unpleasant side effects and can damage other internal organs).
There are numerous medical conditions that this kind of implant could help treat, or even cure. Serious mental disorders like depression and other illness like epilepsy, brain cancers or even cases of chronic pain resulting from injuries could be treated with these implants. These implants could treat these conditions with far fewer side effects than drugs or the much less palatable electroshock therapy. There are numerous medical benefits such a device could produce.
But there is also the potential for great harm. Being able to stimulate brain chemistry, particularly the brain’s reward/pleasure center, brings a great risk of addiction. This is exactly what some recreational drugs accomplish, and even substances which are legal like sugar or caffeine. Being able to over-stimulate the rewards center could leave one at the mercy of the implant, which is obviously a net negative.
Venturing out into the more conspiratorial territory, there is also the danger that such implants could pose if they are not secure. If the device could be hacked, you would not only be at the mercy of the device, you would also be at the mercy of the person who controls it. That person may be a hacker, or it may be someone with a more official role. Anyone who has seen The Matrix trilogy gets the idea of just what kind of control over the population an implant like this could enable.
The question at the end of the article is this: Is the net impact of this implant positive or negative? Yes, it represents great potential to treat many numerous conditions which impose great suffering on its victims…conditions which are difficult if not impossible to treat with our modern methods. But it also has a great potential for abuse, and it could potentially cause great harm. As the article said:
“Technology in the wrong hands always has potentially negative consequences,” Bruchas said.
It’s possible the wrong hands may be our own.
It’s a fascinating subject to think about, especially the ethical implications of such technology. What do you think?