‘It became me’: Studies show that revolutionary new brain chips may bend your mind in strange and troubling ways

Story by (Evan Malmgren)

‘It became me’: Studies show that revolutionary new brain chips may bend your mind in strange and troubling ways

Elon Musk wants to put a computer chip in your brain. Well, maybe not in your brain, but in the brain of some human somewhere. 

Musk’s neurotech startup, Neuralink, has been working toward implanting its skull-embedded brain chip in a human since it was founded in 2016. After years of testing on animal subjects, Musk announced in December that the company planned to initiate human trials within six months (though this wasn’t the first time he’d said these trials were on the horizon).

Neuralink has spent over half a decade figuring out how to translate brain signals into digital outputs — imagine being able to move a cursor, send a text message, or type in a word processor with just a thought. While the initial focus is on medical use cases, such as helping paralyzed people communicate, Musk has aspired to take Neuralink’s chips mainstream — to, as he’s said, put a “Fitbit in your skull.” 

Musk’s company is far from the only group working on brain-computer interfaces, or systems to facilitate direct communication between human brains and external computers. Other researchers have been looking into using BCIs to restore lost senses and control prosthetic limbs, among other applications. While these technologies are still in their infancy, they’ve been around long enough for researchers to increasingly get a sense of how neural implants interact with our minds. As Anna Wexler, an assistant professor of philosophy in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, put it: “Of course it causes changes. The question is what kinds of changes does it cause, and how much do those changes matter?”

Intervening in the delicate operation of a human brain is a sticky business, and the effects are not always desirable or intended. People using BCIs can feel a profound sense of dependency on the devices, or as though their sense of self has been altered. Before we reach the point where people are lining up to get a smartphone implanted in their brain, it’s important to grapple with their dangers and unique ethical pitfalls.