Doctor, I just can’t seem to remember things as well as I did, and I’ve been getting terrible headaches…

Let’s review your medical history… Uh huh… I see you were treated for a problem with your hippocampus after an accident? You had a prosthesis installed?

Yes… I think so…  About ten years ago… It’s under the skin just behind my left ear...

Let me run some diagnostics… yes, it seems you’ve picked up a virus. MEMSUR-34. I’ll just de-activate the chip and we’ll get you to an outpatient department as soon as we can. They’ll wipe out the malware and reprogram, and you’ll be right as rain. You might consider getting a later model installed though. These old ones only use 1024 bit encryption…


Peering into the tealeaves today, it appears that some of the work in the last 5-10 years on direct biological-electronic interfaces will be ready for Prime Time around 2050. Actually, a lot earlier. But U.S. FDA approval could easily take decades in such a controversial area.

It was back in 1999 that a research team first managed to replace part of a spiny lobster’s brain with ‘$7.50 worth of Radio Shack parts’. Spiny lobsters are not exactly giants of intellect but progress was rapid. It was in 2003 that an artificial hippocampus was first mooted and tests began on animals in 2006. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps transfer short-term memories into long-term ones. We still don’t know how it works, exactly. But, by measuring inputs and resultant electrical activity, we are able to emulate it without exact understanding. One area we have a far better understanding of is in the visual cortex, and prostheses to help the vision-impaired will likely be the first to hit the market.

So what does this mean for us in the future? Those victims of Alzheimers will have the progress of their disease slowed or even halted. Many brain injuries will now be, if not curable, treatable with ‘prosthetic brain segments’ that will restore the cognitive deficits. Blindness may become extinct as artificial eyes coupled with artificial visual cortices will give sight to even the worst cases.

The Military will have access to WiFi networks via direct implants but the trouble with this is that the hacker may become the hacked. Taking over someone’s mind will be impossible but incapacitating them will not — if they too have implants. Research on this is already progressing, but details are, of course, not public.

One problem that will occur though: in order to reprogram these devices with updates, it will be necessary to have some non-invasive programming mechanism — possibly an inductor, usually in contact with the skin above the implant. And that means that they will get spammed and hacked, and there will be worms and viruses that will disable their functionality. They’ll all be fail-safe, so the worst symptom will be headache and a loss of function. But anyone who’s had a virus of the usual biological kind knows just how miserable that can make you feel!

Jingles and ear-worms are bad enough. But directly implanted simple false memories may victimise some in a similar but far worse way. So it’s likely that these prosthetic devices will be confined to therapeutic use — at least, until the penalty for spamming is increased to a one-way trip to the organ banks.


Futurist Zoe Brain really is a rocket scientist! She shares her visions of our collective near-future in this space every second Wednesday…

4 Responses to Neuroprosthetics

  1. Alan Kellogg
    Jan 23, 2009

    Our attitude towards programming and malware will have to change, once mistakes and malignancy become literally matters of life, death, and free will. Getting it right and getting it complete is going to be vital again.

  2. Chris
    Jan 23, 2009

    Interesting! I’ve been wondering what happened since seeing a few news reports about artificial synapses years ago.

  3. Eric Jacksch
    Jan 25, 2009

    With the exception of a few fields (like aerospace and some medical devices), software today is often so poorly designed. Very little, if any, “engineering” goes into most “software engineering”.

  4. Zoe Brain
    Jan 25, 2009

    As a software engineer who works in aerospace and making medical therapeutic devices (and naval combat systems etc)… Eric, I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    The problem seems to be that a buggy, poorly-engineered piece of used food that’s ready in June will always outsell a reliable, easy to use and flexible system that won’t be ready until September. In fact, it will monopolise the market, so the second system never gets a look-in.
    That in turn is replaced with an even more buggy system with more bells and whistles in December. And so it goes.

    Or it does unless lives are at stake, and/or lawsuits likely unless engineering best practices are used.

    The thing is, these engineering best practices have now been developed in aerospace in particular so that there’s no longer a time penalty till delivery. Unfortunately, the number of aerospace practioners is small, and the supply of MSCE’s far greater, so from a human resources viewpoint, it makes sense to continue with shoddy development. Instead of fault-tolerant systems, we have created fault-tolerant customers – even in the military now.

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