On manipulating memories, we're not as far behind Hollywood as you might think

Deep brain stimulation is racing ahead, and the ethical issues associated with it are starting to be debated.

Remember Total Recall? When the film came out in 1990, its premise, in which people take virtual holidays using memory manipulation, seemed farfetched. But on 20 August President Obama’s commission on bioethics debated what we ought to do about memory manipulation. That’s because it is just one of many invasive actions we are beginning to perform on the brain.
 
This month, the first trials of a new technique for controlling Parkinson’s disease began. A German sufferer has had a “deep brain stimulation” device, essentially a pair of electrodes, implanted in his brain. It will monitor the brain’s activity to deliver electrical currents designed to combat tremors and muscle rigidity. A similar technique has been shown, in a few cases, to reverse the shrinkage of brain tissues associated with Alzheimer’s disease. This reversal was not only about the neural tissue’s physical appearance: it led to improved brain functioning. No one knows how it works; the best guess is that it stimulates the growth of neurons.
 
Deep brain stimulation is also a treatment option if you have obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD appears to arise when electrical circuits conveying signals between the emotional and the decision-making parts of the brain become stuck in feedback loops. That leads to people compulsively repeating actions because the anxieties associated with not having done the task don’t get erased. A jolt of electricity seems to clear the brain jam, however. Similar treatments seem to be a cure for depression in some people.
 
And, true to Hollywood, we are now manipulating memories. We’re not yet at the virtual holiday stage, but mice are starting to have some strange experiences. Last month it was reported that electricity delivered to a mouse’s hippocampus gave it a memory of receiving a shock to the foot.
 
Hence the need for ethical review: it is easy to see how this could eventually be used to create a tool for controlling errant prisoners, say, or mental-health patients. Perhaps you remember the electroconvulsive “therapy” punishment in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? It’s still seen as a treatment option for depression but some think it’s too blunt an instrument. Deep brain stimulation is far less blunt – yet who decides just how blunt is acceptable?
 
There are many other issues to face. As we begin our assault on the brain, we will begin to gather information that might turn out to be problematic. Brain experiments are already suggesting that some people have naturally poor control over impulsive actions, and are more prone to criminal or antisocial behaviour. It is important that such information should not get thrown casually into the public sphere.
 
For all the appropriate caution, let’s acknowledge that some of the things we’re learning to do to the brain are really rather exciting. Having a virtual holiday might sound like a bore, but what about having razor-sharp focus at the flick of a switch? The US military is piloting a scheme that is mind-bendingly futuristic: a DC electrical current applied to the brain that in effect puts you into a high-concentration zone. With “transcranial direct current stimulation”, learning is accelerated and performance in tasks that require mental focus is significantly enhanced.
 
The Americans are using it to improve sniper training but that won’t be the only application. One day soon you might unplug yourself and utter the immortal words: “I know kung fu.” Hollywood races ahead, but we’re not as far behind as you might think.
Jack Nicholson in the film version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.