One of the classic tropes of 80s cyberpunk is "jacking in" -- connecting one's neural interface from a hardware-augmented brain to the computer networks at large. The neural interface was one of those science fiction technologies that made for good stories, but as a real-world development, it raised all sorts of questions. Who'd want to go through the surgery for that? What about upgrading when better technology came out? And who's going to beta test the thing?!?
Well, get ready, because we're about to get some answers.
Cyberkinetics, a Massachusetts company, has launched the first human trials of their new BrainGate neural interface. This won't be for console cowboys trying to make their big cyberspace break, but for the physically disabled needing communication and activity.
The System could potentially be used to help increase the independence of people with disabilities by allowing them to control various devices with their thoughts. Through their control of a personal computer, users of the BrainGate System may be able to control a variety of devices to complete everyday tasks such as composing an email, answering the telephone and controlling a television...
The principle of operation of the BrainGate Neural Interface System is that with intact brain function, neural signals are generated even though they are not sent to the arms, hands and legs. These signals are interpreted by the System and a cursor is shown to the user on a computer screen that provides an alternate "BrainGate pathway". The user can use that cursor to control the computer, just as a mouse is used.
Not surprisingly, the other probable candidate for early adoption of this technology is the military.
All the usual caveats apply regarding experimental technology, but the chances are good that the BrainGate (or something very much like it) will eventually be a mechanism for the severely physically disabled to continue to be productive and engaged with the world. And while it's undoubtedly enormously expensive now, there's no reason why such systems wouldn't be just as subject to Moore's Law as any other digital device. Within a decade of its initial release, the costliest part of a neural interface would likely be the surgery.
While assistive technology for the disabled quite often picks up mainstream uses, I don't see too many people choosing to go under the knife for an implant. The reason is the combination of the risks of surgery and the continued improvement of the technology. Who'd want to choose between being stuck using (effectively) the first computer they ever get and having brain surgery every couple of years? I suspect that the next step in the technology -- driven both by mainstream users and the desire to bring down implementation costs -- will be a non-invasive version, able to pick up on changes in brain electrical activity without opening the skull. And then make it wireless...
Often neglected is the fact that this "neural interface" that helps the disabled with " composing an email, answering the telephone and composing an email" has a lesser signal generating power than blowing into a tube: you can use it to move a mouse up/down - left/right ( which can be used to or move a pong bar up and down. When the amount of actual, reproducible signal that it is possible to get out of the brain reaches the capacity of, for example, a keyboard, or, better, the roughly thirty or so degrees of freedom in moving a hand in a useful way, maybe this will catch on. Until then, I think that most people will be glad to do without plugging electrodes into their brains.