WIRED 1.4: THE DESIRE TO BE WIRED
The Desire to Be Wired
Will we live to see our brains wired to gadgets? How about today?
By Gareth Branwyn
Just mention "neural interfacing" (being wired directly to a machine) on a
computer bulletin board and you will quickly receive comments like the
I am interested in becoming a guinea pig (if you will) for any
cyberpunkish experiment from a true medicine/military/cyber/neuro place.
New limbs, sight/hearing improvements, bio-monitors, etc. Or even things
as simple as under the skin time pieces.
Online conversants will pour forth such cybernetic dreams as computers
driven by thoughts, implanted memory chips, bionic limbs and, of course,
the full-blown desire to have one's brain patched directly into
"cyberspace," the globally-connected computer networks. The romantic
allure of the "cyborg" seems to captivate the fringes of digital culture,
especially on the nets.
Neural interfacing fantasies have mainly grown out of science fiction,
where "add-on" technologies turn people into powerful hybrids of flesh and
steel. Since so much of our contemporary mythology comes from SF, an
inherent confusion between fantasy and reality is to be expected. This
already has happened in the field of virtual reality. Today's crude
systems in no way reflect the media hype and "Cyberspace NOW " mentality
of the impatient computerized masses. Neuroscientists and engineers in the
area of implant technologies offer a similar tale of woe. Science fiction
has fed us so many images of technologically souped-up humans that the
current work in neural prosthesis (devices that supplement or replace
neurological function) and mind-driven computers seems almost retro by
Images of human-machine courtship are omnipresent in pop culture. Recent
albums by digital artists Brian Eno, Clock DVA, and Frontline Assembly
sport names like Nerve Net, Man Amplified and Tactical Neural Implant. A
recent Time magazine article on the cyberpunk movement made a number of
dubious references to the near-future tech of brain implants, offering
"instant fluency in a foreign language or arcane subject." Roleplaying
games based on bionic, post-apocalyptic SF are gobbling up market share
once reserved for Dungeons & Dragons.
Computer network and hacker slang is filled with references to "being
wired" or "jacking in" (to a computer network), "wetware" (the brain), and
"meat" (the body). Science fiction films, from Robocop to the recent
Japanese cult film Tetsuo: The Iron Man, imprint our imaginations with
images of the new, increasingly adaptable human-cum-cyborg who can
exfoliate one body and instantly construct another. One might even
speculate a link between the surprising popularity of modern primitivism
(piercing, tattooing, body modification) and the emerging techno-mythology
of "morphing" the human body to the demands and opportunities of a
post-human age. The human body is becoming a hack site, the mythology
goes, a nexus where humanity and technology are forging a new and powerful
Academic discourse also is rife with talk of cyborg bodies and the need to
re-think the postmodern relationship between humans and machines. "There's
a rapt, mindless fascination with these disembodying or ability-augmenting
technologies," says Allucquere Rosanne Stone, director of the Advanced
Communications Technology Lab at the University of Texas. "I think of it
as a kind of cyborg envy.... The desire to be wired is part of the larger
fantasy of disembodiment, the deep childlike desire to go beyond one's
body. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Certainly for the handicapped,
it can be very liberating. For others, who have the desire without the
need, there can be problems. Political power still exists inside the body
and being out of one's body or extending one's body through technology
doesn't change that."
"People want the power without paying the attendant costs," says Don Ihde,
professor of the Philosophy of Technology at SUNY, Stonybrook. "It's a
Is the desire to be wired a fantasy born of our relationship with
increasingly personalized and miniaturized technology? Will neural
interfacing be commonplace in a future we will live to see? If so, what
biomedical and bioengineering feats will be necessary? Most important,
what function-restoring neural prostheses are being researched that show
promise for the disabled, and may eventually lead to function-amplifying
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In her influential essay "A Cyborg Manifesto," science historian Donna
Haraway suggests that the severely disabled are often the first to
appreciate the fruitful couplings of humans and machines. A brief
conversation with anyone who has a pacemaker, a new hip, a (good) hearing
aid, an artificial heart, or any one of a host of bionic devices will bear
The neural prosthetic and interface technologies of today can be broken
down into three major areas: auditory and visual prosthesis, functional
neuromuscular stimulation (FNS), and prosthetic limb control via implanted
neural interfaces. So far, the most successful implants have been in the
realm of hearing. Larry Orloff, a scientist who had suffered hearing loss
since childhood, edits Contact, a newsletter for people with hearing
implants. He reports that there are more than 7,000 people worldwide
outfitted with cochlear implants. These devices work through tiny
electrodes placed in the cochlea region of the inner ear to compensate for
the lack of cochlear hair cells, which transduce sound waves into
bioelectrical impulses in ears that function normally. Although current
versions of these devices may not match the fidelity of normal ears, they
have proven very useful. Dr. Terry Hambrecht, a chief researcher in neural
prosthetics, reports in the Annual Review of Biophysics and Bioengineering
(1979) that implanted patients had "significantly higher scores on tests
of lipreading and recognition of environmental sounds, as well as
increased intelligibility of some of the subjects' speech."
The hearing-implant patients and family members I interviewed spoke of
their desperation during their deaf years and emphasized how much they
appreciated the technology that had changed their lives. John Anderson, a
43-year-old implant recipient from Massachusetts offered his views via
electronic mail (he still has trouble communicating by phone): "The
silence of those three years when I was totally deaf is still deafening to
me these many years later. My life was in the hearing world and it was
critical for me to be able to hear like 'everyone else.'" Orloff spoke
movingly of hearing things like crickets, birds, and church bells for the
first time. He also points out that computer networking was instrumental
in his getting the implant: He first learned of the technology on
An even more radical type of auditory prosthesis now under development
snakes hair-thin wires deep into the brain stem, linking it with an
external speech processor. But don't expect to see it soon.
Visual prosthetics is still a long way from offering any major
breakthroughs, though several promising directions are being explored. The
goal of most of these schemes is to implant electrodes into the visual
cortex of the brain to stimulate discernible patterns of phosphenes which
can then be interpreted by the user. Phosphenes are those tiny dots (the
proverbial stars) that can be seen after rubbing one's eyes or after
getting beaned on the head. These phospenes originate in the brain and are
responsive to electrocortical stimulation. Recently, Dr. Hambrecht and
fellow researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) implanted a
38-electrode array into the visual cortex of a blind woman's brain. She
was able to see simple light patterns and to make out crude letters when
the electrodes were stimulated.
Richard Alan Normann, professor of bioengineering at the University of
Utah, has been developing similar "artificial eyes" that would use denser
phosphene arrays (100 electrodes). The long-range goal of his research is
the development of vision hardware that "will consist of a miniature video
camera mounted on a pair of sunglasses, signal processing electronics, a
transdermal connector to pass across the skin, and an array
of...microelectrodes permanently implanted in the visual cortex." The
development timetable for these systems is still long-term; advances have
been slow. Often years pass between experiments as researchers
painstakingly assemble the required miniature electronics.
Beyond sight and sound, functional neuromuscular stimulation systems are
in experimental use in cases where spinal cord damage or a stroke has
severed the link between the brain and the peripheral nervous system.
These systems usually combine implanted electrodes and an external
battery-powered microprocessor. The system is controlled by switches,
either triggered manually or through movement of some body part (an elbow
or shoulder) that is still operational. These types of systems are likely
to be used clinically one day to restore movement in legs, arms, and
hands. Similar electrical stimulation schemes to restore bladder control
and respiratory functions are also in experimental and even clinical use.
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Some of the most compelling research in the area of neural interfacing is
being done at Stanford University. A recent article in the IEEE
Transactions on Biomedical Engineering (V39, N9) reports that "a
microelectrode array capable of recording from and stimulating peripheral
nerves at prolonged intervals after surgical implantation has been
demonstrated." These tiny silicon-based arrays were implanted into the
peroneal nerves of rats and remained operative for up to 13 months. The
ingeniously designed chip is placed in the pathway of the surgically
severed nerve. The regenerating nerve grows through a matrix of holes in
the chip, while the regenerating tissue surrounding it anchors the device
in place. Although this research is very preliminary and there are still
many intimidating technical and biological hurdles (on-board signal
processing, radio transmittability, learning how to translate neuronal
communications), the long-term future of this technology is exciting.
Within several decades, "active" versions of these chips could provide a
direct neural interface with prosthetic limbs, and by extension, a direct
While a composite image of all these technologies might portray the bionic
humans of SF, the practical limitations and technological obstacles are
still sobering. Very few of these technologies are in approved clinical
use, and most of them will not be for a decade or two. One of the main
things frustrating this research is finding (or developing) materials that
are not toxic to the organism and that will not be degraded by the
organism. The human body has formidable defenses against invading hardware.
Besides the material and physical hurdles, this technology raises
tremendous ethical and social issues. Many critics say that neural
implants are impractical at best, if not downright irresponsible. These
critics contend that implants are bioengineering marvels looking for a
justifiable use, rather than appropriate technology for the disabled.
Other naysayers argue that these unproven prosthetic devices give
experimental subjects unreasonable expectations of sight, sound, and
independence. Scott Bally, assistant professor of audiology at Gallaudet
University, points out that auditory implants are very controversial in
the deaf community. "Many deaf people feel as though deafness is not a
handicap. They are culturally deaf individuals who have successfully
adapted themselves to being deaf and feel as though things like cochlear
implants would take them out of their deaf culture, a culture which
provides a significant degree of support."
William Sauter, head of prosthetics at MacMillian Medical Center in
Toronto, also has reservations. "A patient must go into surgery again, and
I think most amputees don't like to be opened up," he observes in a May
1990 Science article on the Stanford research. In thinking of a future
populated by machine-grafted humans, questions are raised as to how
society as a whole will relate to people walking around with plugs and
wires sprouting out of their heads. And who will decide which segments of
the society become the wire-heads? "People are just not ready for
cyborgs," says the implanted John Anderson.
And the moral issue of animal testing cannot be overlooked. Society as a
whole, and armchair "neuronauts" in particular, should be aware that this
research is totally dependent on the extensive use of laboratory animals.
Legions of cats, monkeys, rats, rabbits, bullfrogs, and guinea pigs have
been poked, prodded, zapped, and stuffed full of experimental hardware in
the name of progress.
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Perhaps more within the realm of science fiction than science fact,
"neurohackers" are the new do-it-yourself brain tinkerers who have decided
to take matters into their own heads. "There is quite an underground of
neurohackers beaming just about every type of field imaginable into their
heads to stimulate certain neurological structures (usually the pleasure
centers )," a neurohacker wrote to me via e-mail. Several of these
basement experimenters were willing to talk.
Meet Zorn. I got his name (which has been changed) from another
neurohacker who told me a wild tale about a device that Zorn had recently
built. "It's got an electrode ring situated over the pleasure centers of
the brain. I know someone who tried it and he said it was like having a
continuous orgasm." My God, you mean this guy's invented the Orgasmatron ?
I immediately called Zorn, but at the suggestion of the other hacker, I
only talk to him generally about basement brain tech.
Zorn's a psychologist by trade and a weekend electronics hobbyist. He
tells me about several sound and vision devices (brain toys) he's built,
similar to those now commercially available. He seems entirely sane; he's
full of cautions. When I tell him about some of the other neurohacks I've
heard about, he expresses deep concern. "If these people are going to mess
with neuroelectric or neuromagnetic stimulation, they should build in more
safety devices. There's a tremendous potential for harm: brain damage."
When I ask him what he's been doing recently, he becomes quiet. "Well,
it's something I'd rather not talk about. It's a device I built that could
very easily be abused." (Hmmm... My mind flashes with perverse images of
twitching orgasmo-junkies permanently jacked into the Zorn Device.)
"Why would it be abused?" I ask.
"I really can't say anything more about it. It would be a disaster if it
got out into the world." Definitely an Orgasmatron...or perhaps just
another piece of cybernetic mythology.
David Cole of the non-profit group AquaThought is another independent
researcher willing to explore the inside of his own cranium. Over the
years, he's been working on several schemes to transfer EEG patterns from
one person's brain to another. The patterns of recorded brain waves from
the source subject are amplified many thousands of times and then
transferred to a target subject (in this case, Cole himself). The first
tests on this device, dubbed the Montage Amplifier, were done using
conventional EEG electrodes placed on the scalp. The lab notes from one of
the first sessions with the Amplifier report that the target (Cole)
experienced visual effects, including a "hot spot" in the very location
where the source subject's eyes were being illuminated with a flashlight.
Cole experienced a general state of "nervousness, alarm, agitation, and
flushed face" during the procedure. The results of these initial
experiments made Cole skittish about attempting others using electrical
stimulation. He has since done several sessions using deep magnetic
stimulation via mounted solenoids built from conventional iron nails
wrapped with 22-gauge wire. "The results are not as dramatic, but they are
consistent enough to warrant more study," he says.
Part of the danger of monkeying with one's brain, especially with little
or no knowledge of neuroscience, is that most individuals do not have
access to the sophisticated testing and feedback devices that are
available to legitimate researchers. Through devices like the Mindset,
a "desktop EEG," Cole and other researchers hope to change that (see Going
Mental, page 106). "It is imperative that neuroscience research is not
limited to large organizations with big budgets," insists Cole.
The further I got out on the fringes of neurohacking, the more noise
overcame signal. I heard rumors of brain-power amplification devices,
wire-heading (recreational shock therapy), and most disturbing of all,
claims that people are actually poking holes in their heads and directly
stimulating their brains. (Kids, don't try this at home )
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Jacking in? Please stand by...
We know the future will be wired. Hardwiring of neural prosthesis is
already here and will continue to develop towards completely implantable
systems controlled by the user's brain. Most researchers, perhaps
over-cautiously, contend that these advanced systems are 10-20 years in
the future. Whatever the date, this technology will eventually become a
common enabling option for the disabled, and at that point, people will
surely start talking about using the same technology for elective human
But even when that day comes, many questions will remain. Will people
really want to have their heads opened and wired? How will they pay for
what will certainly be expensive procedures? And what about obsolescence?
Technology moves at light speed now. How fast will it move a decade from
now? In that accelerated future, today's hot neural interface could become
tomorrow's neuro-trash. "Look, Jimmy's still got the version 1.1 Cranium
Jack " (titter, titter). Certainly, even the most enthusiastic neuronauts
will not want to subject themselves to repeated brain surgery in the
pursuit of the latest hardware upgrade.
For the near future, the bulk of elective interface options will continue
to be softwired ones, mainly via the sophisticated neural transducers we
already have: our five senses. Likely directions include more immersive
3D, voice input/output, and a whole wardrobe of VR work and leisure suits.
The sexiest, most SF interfaces of the next decade will include
EEG-controlled/radio transmitted input devices.
Certainly the mythic desire for the bionic human, whether to restore what
was lost or to add on what is desired, will continue to drive much of this
inquiry. What direction such desires will take is anyone's guess.
Professor Idhe: "I think a lot of this is conceptualist stuff, wishful
thinking. These are fantasies that may have nothing to do with what
eventually gets developed and used. As Avital Ronell points out in The
Telephone Book: Technology - Schizophrenia - Electric Speech, the phone
was originally intended as a prosthetic device for the hard of hearing.
Technology will always develop as the society decides what it's to be used
for, not necessarily what the designer or visionary had in mind."
Gareth Branwyn (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor of bOING bOING
magazine and the creator of the HyperCard program "Beyond Cyberpunk: A Do
It Yourself Guide to the Future." He is a columnist for Artpaper, and
contributing writer for The Whole Earth Review and the Utne Reader.
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SIDEBAR The Desire To Be Wired
Let Your Neurons Do the Typing
Psychic Labs fills the crowded front room of a seventh-floor flat in a
posh Park Avenue apartment building. Stacks of data tapes containing
recordings of brain waves compete for wall space with four video screens,
professional sound equipment, and a bookshelf stuffed with programming
manuals and arcane psychic literature. Since the apartment doubles as the
home of psycho-engineer Masahiro Kahata and his family, visitors are asked
to remove their shoes in keeping with Japanese custom. In this humble
little room, say neuro-hackers, the revolution is taking place.
Using simple little boxes and electrodes, Kahata offers a new twist on
"jacking in." First, hook a MIDI controller to your head, then plug it
into your Macintosh and watch your own brain waves go by in full color.
A well-credentialed software engineer in Japan, Kahata came to New York in
1989. He is universally acknowledged as a visionary for his Interactive
Brainwave Visual Analyzer (IBVA). Six years in the making, the IBVA is a
$1,000 Mac-based system that picks up brain waves and translates them into
colorful 3D graphs on the computer screen.
Kahata and like-minded researchers say that one day, keyboards and mice
will be unnecessary - commands will be fed to the computer merely by
Unfortunately, that day is not yet here. According to David Cole, director
of research and development for Chinon America and an independent
researcher in the field of mental computing, advances in direct-brain
input to personal computers are akin to the replacement of clunky old
typesetting machines with fast, cheap desktop publishing equipment. If
Cole is right, the results might be the desktop equivalent of the
electroencephalograph (EEG). But for now the equipment is more reminiscent
of the early Apple IIs. In those days, you had to buy an extra board to
make lowercase letters.
The principle of direct brain-input systems is simple. Your nervous system
generates electric wavelengths with frequencies ranging from one-half
cycle to more than 30 cycles per second. An electrode attached to your
forehead picks up these waves as complex electrical signals, which it then
transmits via radio signals to the computer. The computer uses a
mathematical routine, called a "Fourier Transform," to break the signals
into different wave components. Each component has a frequency of its own.
Its amplitude can be graphed in near real time. According to
neuroscientists, the level of "activity," or the strength of the waves at
each frequency, has neurological meaning - it tells you what your brain is
doing. Sort of.
This is about where science ends and, er, wacko-ism can set in. Doctors
can certainly use brain-wave data for certain things. An epileptic
seizure, for example, would show up quite dramatically. Intense
concentration or even a sudden realization might manifest itself as
distinct patterns in the graphs. But beyond that, any claims that people
use brain waves to send messages, elegantly control computers, or bend
spoons is speculation, if not pseudo-scientific fraud. Simply put, most
neurologists would not ascribe that kind of power to brain waves.
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Kahata's work evolved from a fascination with the psychic trickery of
Israeli birthday party magician Uri Geller and other self-described
psychics who preyed upon gullible Japanese (and Americans) in the 1970s.
He was intrigued by a spoon-bending trick Geller performs, and decided to
measure brain-wave activity of psychics. He found, indeed, a significant
increase in the brain activity of psychics as they plied their trades.
Science writer and magic teacher Dorion Sagan (son of Carl) analyzes the
situation this way: "If there is a tightly correlated increase in mental
activity while a psychic is bending spoons, it is probably because he is
nervous he is going to get caught."
But such psychic tomfoolery fostered the development of what could be a
great tool, in the right hands. The IBVA - a two-component system packaged
in plastic boxes the size of card decks; one strapped to your head, one to
a receiver that sits on top of a computer - can use brain input for almost
anything. Kahata's partner, Drew DeVito, has hooked it up to a MIDI
interface to produce low, soothing music correlated precisely with brain
activity from the frontal lobes. You can send brain-wave data over a
modem. You can even record the data on a Walkman and analyze it later.
Because the IBVA system is wireless, you can walk around and look out at
Park Avenue while the computer records your brain waves. And while
first-timers often have trouble with the device (mastery takes practice),
recordings of LSD-promoter Timothy Leary's brain waves show that he is
able to increase or decrease activity in any one part of the brain almost
Mindset, an even more advanced IBVA-like instrument developed by
AquaThought, Cole's non-profit group, is now on the market. While the IBVA
looks at either one or two parts of the brain, Mindset, with the aid of a
gooey, electroconductive gel, maps the whole brain at sixteen spots, thus
reproducing on a laptop what was once possible only in a hospital or
medical lab with a bulky and expensive EEG. The package will come with its
own programming language which, according to software developer Sunil
Gupta of Baltimore's Monsoon Software, will provide total control of the
computer based on sixteen-channel brain input. "You do, of course, have
the option of shaving your scalp, and then you wouldn't need the jelly,"
Gupta said. With personal-computer-based flexibility and a list price of
around $1,500, Mindset could have far more mass appeal than a $20,000 EEG.
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While skeptics will be singularly unimpressed by the present technology
(the IBVA is a long way from transferring thought to the screen), the
implications of IBVA and Mindset are astounding. The possibilities for
enlightened medical use are numerous: With something like IBVA, some day a
quadriplegic could "push buttons" by thinking. BioMuse, a more advanced
and elaborate system from BioControl Systems in Palo Alto, California, has
already shown some impressive test results in this field.
Medical student and neuro-hacker David Warner of Loma Linda University
Medical Center puts it this way: "If you consider the keyboard and mouse
as a unit, when we put the body into the cybernetic loop, human-computer
interaction time will increase a thousandfold."
Warner predicts a change in the structure of human communications as a
result. "Natural language is based on a physiological optimum," Warner
says. "There is nothing optimum about little letters. The Gutenberg
paradigm is dead."
At the cutting edge, in the distant future, that may be true. In the
meantime, however, inexpensive equipment like the IBVA should increase
access to brain-computing for hackers - the driving force behind most
electronic innovation. That should speed things up; but don't toss out
your keyboard - or shave your head - just yet.
* * *
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Zachary Margulis is a reporter at the New York Daily News.
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