- Electronic medical implants are at least 50 years old,
but new devices are raising unforeseen ethical and social concerns. Dr.
Mae-Wan Ho email@example.com calls for thorough public debate and
before these devices are let loose on society
- Celebrity Pain Control
- Hollywood comedian Jerry Lewis, now 78, has suffered
from chronic back pain for years until April 2001, when he received an
implant. The pain pacemaker, delivers low-voltage stimulation to his spinal
cord to block the pain messages from reaching his brain, so he no longer
- Before that, he tried everything to quell his "37
years of constant pain"; analgesics, steroids and cortisone, and was
addicted for 13 years to the painkiller Percodan. He was about to shoot
himself when his young daughter Danielle walked in and inadvertently
him back to his senses.
- That very day, he received a trial model of a
device with a hand-held control that sends electronic pulses to the
nerves, blocking the pain message to the brain. Within days, he underwent
surgery to implant electrode leads in his spine and a battery pack just
under the skin near his left hip. And he has been singing the praises of
the device ever since.
- Jerry Lewis is living in a kind of virtual reality. His
back problem still exists, but he is made to think it doesn't.
- The implant costs about $10 000 plus doctor and hospital
fees, and is covered by most HMOs and other insurance plans. It is said
to come with a small risk of infection, and patients with implants cannot
have MRI screenings because the heat on the electrode's metal tips could
cause serious nerve damage.
- Could a non-implanted, more easily controlled version
do just as well? After all, the trial (pre-implant) model appeared to have
been good enough to convince Jerry Lewis to accept the implant.
- In fact, implanted devices are known to have a range
of electronic, mechanical and other problems that has resulted in massive
product recalls by the FDA (see "Electronic medical implants promises
& perils http://www.i-sis.org.uk/EMIPAP.php ", this
- Yet newer implants that interface with computers have
been approved, which are raising additional unforeseen ethical and social
- Thought Control Helps Quadriplegic
- Brain-computer interfaces are developing rapidly to help
paralysed people regain control of their lives and the ability to
- A quadriplegic 25 year-old man had a chip implanted into
his brain in June 2004; and by October, he was able to control a computer
to check his e- mail and play computer games simply by thinking. He can
also turn lights on and off and control a television while talking and
moving his head. All of which is pretty impressive.
- The chip, BrainGate, is developed by Massachusetts
Cyberknetics, based on research at Brown University, Rhode Island. Up to
five more patients will be recruited for further research into the safety
and potential utility of the device.
- John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience at Brown
and co-founder of Cyberkinetics in 2001, said BrainGate could help
people control wheelchairs and communicate using e-mail and internet-based
phone systems. "Our ultimate goal is to develop the BrainGate System
so that it can be linked to many useful devices," he said.
- Donoghue received an innovation award from Discover
for his work.
- Donoghue's initial research, published in the journal
Nature in 2002, involved an implant to a monkey's brain that enabled it
to play a simple pinball computer game remotely. The four-millimeter square
chip, placed on the surface of the motor-cortex in the monkey's brain
100 electrodes each thinner than a hair, and inserted into individual brain
cells to detect its electrical activity. The implanted chip is connected
to a computer via a small wire attached to a pedestal mounted on the
- This invasive brain implant carries risks of infection
and of neurons dying. And if it goes wrong, it cannot be easily
- Another research team has raised hopes that brain
may not be necessary at all for brain computer interface.
- Thinking Caps
- Four people put on an electrode-studded "thinking
cap" and were able to control a computer with their thoughts. No
or implant was required. The US researchers reported their experiment in
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December
- "The results show that people can learn to use
electroencephalogram rhythms [brain waves] to control rapid and accurate
movement of a cursor in two dimensions," wrote Jonathan Wolpaw and
Dennis McFarland of the New York State Department of Health and State
of New York, Albany.
- The thinking caps were tested on four people, two partly
paralysed men who used wheelchairs, a healthy man and a healthy woman.
In the experiments, the four volunteers faced a video screen wearing the
cap with 64 electrodes against the scalp to record the brain waves.
- The key was a special adaptive algorithm - a computer
programme - that successively optimised the translation of filtered brain
signals into what the users wanted the computer to do. It took practice,
but all four learned to move a cursor on the screen in two dimensions,
vertically and horizontally. The two disabled men were better at the task,
possibly because they were more strongly motivated, or because they have
a brain forced to be more adaptable to cope with the injuries that left
- "The impressive non-invasive multidimensional
achieved in the present study suggests that a non-invasive brain control
interface could support clinically useful operation of a robotic arm, a
motorised wheelchair, or a neuroprosthesis," the researchers wrote.
In movement time, precision, and accuracy, the results are comparable to
those with invasive implants.
- Getting Ready For Matrix?
- So, is a non-implanted thinking cap an unadulterated
good? For the individuals concerned, no doubt. It is non-invasive and does
not require surgery to remove. It can be put on and taken off at will.
With practice, and with robotic machines under their control, the users
could be more able-bodied, than almost anyone else.
- But brain-computer interface raises new concerns. Could
employers or government agents or the police make people wear thinking
caps while being interviewed so their very thoughts could be revealed?
Could a disloyal, thought about one's boss cost a job?
- And further down the line, could a death wish, be
used to kill people you don,t like?
- Could an evil warlord set off an atomic missile attack
just by thinking?
- Or enslave the entire world via the internet, when people
could be tagged and implanted with nano-devices without their
- Brave New World Surveillance
- New electronic tags are indeed here, that enable all
one's records to be instantly recalled, and reciprocally, potentially
a computer to know exactly where one is 24 hours a day.
- In October 2004, a US company, Applied Digital Solutions
in Delray Beach, Florida, got the green light to implant a chip in a
arms that can give instant access to the individual's medical
- The VeriChip,, the size of a grain of rice, is implanted
by injecting under the skin. The company received approval from the Food
and Drug Administration to market the chip in the United States.
- VeriChip is a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag
containing a chip encoded with a unique identification number and a tiny
antenna. To read the tag, a scanner that emits radio waves is passed over
it. The antenna detects the radio waves emitted by the scanner and
a tiny electrical current in the chip to beam back a radio signal that
reveals the ID number.
- The company says that the tiny implant could be used
to extract a patient's personal and medical records from a secure database,
and could prove useful when, for example, someone is unconscious or has
numerous records at different clinics that must be pulled together in an
- But critics point out that tagged bracelets or cards
carrying medical information are just as effective as an implanted chip.
They warn that the chips might be used to compulsorily tag and track
or even foreigners visiting a country in the name of fighting terrorism.
(Some of us have had our fingerprints and iris patterns recorded at
visiting the United States recently.)
- "They've crossed a line by placing it under people's
skin," says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information
a civil liberties group in Washington DC.
- RFID tags have been around for over 50 years, although
many of them are larger, battery-powered and actively transmit data carried
on their chips.
- Smaller, cheaper passive, chips that only release
when scanned have been developed over the past decade, and are now poised
to invade many aspects of our lives. As wireless technology increasingly
intrudes into workplaces and homes, a tagged person will not even be aware
that he or she is being scanned.
- "The technology is very much coming to the
says Dan Mullen, president of Association for Automatic Identification
and Mobility, a trade group based in Warrendale, Pennsylvania.
- Most people are already using RFID tags unawares; as
in security badges that allow access to buildings, or in keys that
with a car to allow only the driver in. Many companies are also starting
to use the chips to track goods shipped from manufacturers to their
and avoid them being mislaid or misplaced.
- RFID tags are also routinely implanted in pets, so they
can be identified if lost. But VeriChip is the first implant designed for
use in people, and some people have already been tagged. The Attorney
of Mexico and some of his staff had chips implanted to limit access to
a secure room.
- Dr. Michael Antoniou of Guy's Hospital, King's College
London, says, "This is really frightening; if this gets over here
then it's totally the end of our rights and freedoms!"
- The Time To Debate Is Now
- In 2002, ISIS launched a discussion paper, Towards a
Convention on Knowledge, jointly with SGR (Scientists for Global
INES (International Network of Engineers and Scientists), TWN (Third World
Network) and Tebtebba (an indigenous peoples network based in the
to ensure that all forms of knowledge, including western science, should
be used responsibly for the good of all.
- In that paper, we have explicitly warned against
(nano)devices and prostheses that cannot be easily removed if the
so chose. We also stated that people should not be coerced into accepting
- There is an urgent need for thorough public debate and
consultation before these devices are let loose on society.