Turns out most people do not want the cheat’s route to amped-up brain power. A recently completed survey by Pew Research found that only 13 per cent of American adults thought enhanced cognitive abilities courtesy of brain chips would be good for society; more than half reckoned it an outright bad idea. Nearly four out of five of the 10,260 surveyed would not want one.
Sure, neural implants sound horribly dystopian; the stuff of movies from Hardwired to The Stepford Wives rather than real life. It conjures up a mad scientist controlling microchipped citizens from a dark den. That is not helped by the fact that those operating at the medical frontier are not always those that command societal trust: think Elon Musk, whose Neuralink has grabbed the limelight with an implant composed of more than a thousand electrodes.
But assuming ethicists are on board and hold sway, the attractions are huge. Imagine zipping through reports, prospectuses and data dumps in the day job and still having plenty of time to devour a book a week. Or better, chips could enable those with severe physical disabilities to harness their brain signals to restore lost senses. Brain implants have helped severely paralysed men communicate and even move.
Scientific advances, however, are not accompanied by a wave of private funding. The broader brain computer interface market leans heavily on state funding, academic grants and philanthropists.
Paradromics, whose first commercial product restores communication to those with paralysis, relied on a clutch of groups for the $20mn of seed funding it raised last year. BrainGate, whose implant detects neural signals that are then decoded to provide control signals for assistive technologies, was spun out of Brown University and is now in a consortium with a host of academic institutions.
Barack Obama underlined commitment to the sector in his 2013 State of the Union address. The then US president followed up with a $100mn cheque for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies to help cure and prevent brain disorders.
Pointing out that every dollar invested to map the human genome added $140 to the economy, he called for space race levels of investments in the field. Agencies heeding his call include the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has backed neurotechnology since the 1970s.
Decades after that publicly backed spree, private money is gushing in. Expect cerebral endeavours to track a similar path.
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