If you happen to watch Black Mirror, it is quite likely that you have been scared by the brain implant technologies depicted in the show. In fact, almost a quarter of this show—at least five episodes of the current 22— illustrate the dangers of brain implants. The horror stories range widely, from transferring someone’s consciousness into a chip for interrogation to 24/7 flawless memory recording that can be viewed by others.
In this blog series, we will go over each of these ideas proposed in the show and review some of the scientific advancements that could potentially give rise to these technologies. If you have not seen the episodes, do not worry: spoilers are kept at a minimum!
This is part one of the series. The proposed technology I’ll discuss from the show is brain implants for memory recording throughout the day and reviewing (or even reliving) memories afterward. The implant is a chip called grain that is inserted into the back of the ear.
Even though this episode is dark and dystopic, memory implants can help millions of Alzheimer’s patients worldwide. In fact, memory implants can be considered the holy grail of neural prosthetics! Intriguingly, a group of researchers at the University of Southern California have been working on a device to help Alzheimer’s patients recover some of their memory abilities. Their system records neural activity from the hippocampus (the part of the brain highly involved in memory formation) and computes how these signals differ from a model of a typically functioning hippocampus. These computations are all done using a dedicated chip. Eventually, outputs of the chip are sent back into the brain to stimulate the brain region where outputs of the hippocampus are normally received. In other words, this device tries to bypass the hippocampus and send the correct signals. One of their latest clinical trials in humans was shown to improve performance in a memory task by 15-25%. The task they were tested on is commonly known in memory science as a delayed matched to sample task. Subjects were given time to remember an image and then shown two images (one previously seen and one new) while being asked to indicate which image they have seen before. Now, the team is collaborating with a neural prosthetics startup called Kernel to commercialize their findings.
In another study, this same team used a delayed non-matched to sample task. Rats were given time to remember the position of a lever (familiar) and then, after a delay, were shown two levers (one new and one previously seen). The rats were trained to press the new lever, indicating they remembered what was seen before. What is perhaps most interesting is that this team was able to ‘transfer memories’ from one rat to another. They did this by recording neural activity from the donor rat who had learned a task and stimulating the same patterns in the receiver rat’s brain who was naïve to the task.
Meanwhile, some of the abilities shown in this episode could be achieved by simpler devices such as smart glasses with built-in cameras and microphones. Even though the privacy concerns of such accessories (e.g., Google Glasses) hindered their adoption, promising initial designs without recording devices are emerging. For example, this Amazon-backed startup has introduced an interesting, smart glasses design that can project images onto your eyes, which can be used for navigation, texting, etc. It connects to your smartphone and has Alexa integration, all of which may give this gadget the potential for wide adoption.
Black Mirror is mainly focused on showing the dark side of new technologies, which the show does well. This is a double-edged sword; it is an excellent piece of work that pushes for ethical considerations in the development of brain prosthetics but at the same time, can create paranoia in the eyes of the public. This may undermine the progress of revolutionary technologies, such as Google Glasses, or other technologies that could help millions of patients with neurodegenerative diseases. In the second part of this blog post, we will look at other episodes that explore technology for human consciousness: “Black Museum”, “White Christmas”, and “San Junipero.”
Edited by Benjamin Greulich and Guillaume J. Dury