Professor Nicolelis, in your lab you have controlled the brain of three test animals. These three monkeys then controlled a robot arm by their combined power of thoughts. Is that our future, people acting together through connecting their brains?
Miguel Nicolelis: Well, it could be. We don't know yet. This was an experiment that intended to test this new way of interaction to study how brains interact when linked by a brain-machine interface. This system that we created in our laboratory many years ago. Basically, what we are trying to see is how brains of different individuals synchronize and whether they can collaborate mentally to achieve a task. But it is too early to say whether this is going to become something that everyone can use in the future.
And what do you mean, how will humans interact with machines in the future?
Miguel Nicolelis: Well, both way. How we interact with devices like our computers, our cell phones, but also how we interact together to achieve a common goal to what I call a brain net, a network of brains working to cooperate and to achieve some sort of motor goal.
You warned us about the risk of humans becoming like robots. What do you mean by that?
Miguel Nicolelis: Well, the brain is continuously updating itself. It's continuously changing its functional and even more physiological configuration. As we get overexposed to digital logic and digital devices, the brain is paying attention to that and it is starting to behave in certain conditions as if it was a clone of these digital devices, because it is acquiring the statistics of these systems and since there are many rewards associated with using these devices, what I'm afraid is that in the long run the brain may just evolve to circumstances in which it is really working or mimicking the best it can the way digital systems operate. And in that case, it could compromise things that are very human like our emotions or our creativity, our intuition, things that computers don't have and will never have.
What about other forms of augmenting and enhancing human body? Chip implants, exoskeletons, sensors?
Miguel Nicolelis: When you use a brain-machine interface and since the technology has evolved now for almost two decades, we are getting to a point where we can think particularly in medicine of using this technology to repair lesions created by neurological disorders or traumas to the brain. So, this is already coming. But these implants, for instance, will only be recommended and only be ethically acceptable to treat patients that are in very severe conditions, completely paralyzed, without hope of any other therapy or any other option. But there is a lot that can be done without implants, things that you can do in a non-invasive way. You know, the implants are more used to study the brain in animals. But I actually think that, for instance, what we did with a brain controlled exoskeleton using a non-invasive technology to record brain activity may actually become useful in the future for both, applications in medicine or for applications in the daily life of most of us.
And when you look into the future, what kind of services and technologies do you expect?
Miguel Nicolelis: Well, there are many possibilities. You know, it's always difficult to predict the future, but I think that a brain-machine interface may allow us to have a complete different interaction with devices and may allow also us to amplify our reach, because as I demonstrated in a few studies, with this technology, you do not need the device actually next to you, it can be remote, remotely located. So that may change a lot the way we interact with machines, digital machines for instance.
And when you look into the future, are you optimistic or pessimistic?
Miguel Nicolelis: Well, I'm optimistic about what science can do, because I have been working for 35 years in neuroscience and seen the progress of this field. I'm a little bit concerned about how wise we are becoming or how wise we are in terms of applying this technology in the future. And I think that that's the reason I find it a very fundamental mission to talk to the public and disseminate what is real versus what is science-fiction in this area so people can make an educated choice when time comes to decide whether this could be beneficial to society.