The title to Malcom Gay’s The Brain Electric: The Dramatic High-Tech Race to Merge Minds and Machines proved a more accurate description of the book’s contents than I’d hoped. Recent reads like Spring Chicken and The Emperor of All Maladies have shown me the value of books as deeply explored snapshots of various disciplines’ current states of the art, and so I came in expecting a survey of contemporary brain-machine interfaces. While I certainly finished the book knowing more about this than before, I only realized towards the end that the book expects one to pay attention to all the scientific dramatis personae it lays out through the chapters. The narrative it constructs focuses at least as much on the researchers as their research. It elevates one scientist in particular as the protagonist, with many of its other subjects ending up his skeptical foils. When the fact hit me, I had to flip back to previous chapters to confirm that we’d been following the same guy all along.
I have already forgotten that researcher’s name and laboratory, but I do very well recall the somewhat modest miracle he enables in order to earn the role of the book’s hero. His lab was among the first in the world to demonstrably help a quadriplegic test subject control a robot arm through a wired, surgically installed neural implant to the degree that — in laboratory setting, after a lengthy set-up process involving a team of technicians and a warm-up period of false starts — she can have it grip a nearby bottle of coffee, bring it to her mouth, rotate it so she can comfortably take a sip, and then carefully replace it.
Or, more to the point, she can pick up the coffee and drink it, after long practice using the arm, controlling it by thinking about moving her own flesh-and-blood arm — at least while she’s all wired up in that one researcher’s brain-lab. The Brain Electric’s closing chapters focus on this qualified success, presenting it as brain-machine research’s current high water-mark, resulting from decades of a curious mixture of cumulative published research among scientists and cutthroat competition between them over limited interest and funding.
The book’s attention to the latter facet focused more on sharing colorful, reality show-ready quips from scientists holding opposing hypotheses or techniques than on what I see as its competition’s more interestingly problematic aspects. Brain-machine research, which seems very ripe for a host of societally beneficial advances, seems to have a serious issue attracting funds from a capital-driven system. The private sector just can’t work up a strong interest, at least not while research focus remains on the most obvious target of replacing lost or paralyzed limbs with brain-controlled prosthetics. Compared to the whole population, there just aren’t that many para- or quadriplegics, making the potential immediate market for this research quite small — and potential returns on investment correspondingly tiny, ultimately of little interest to potential funders. The U.S. military, interested for the benefit of wounded soldiers, provides generous grants specifically towards the development of neutrally actuated prosthetics, but not so large or so numerous to carry American research in this field all by itself. Against this resource-starved background, Brain Electric depicts that one lab’s modest success with the coffee bottle as an unlikely victory worth celebrating.
The research’s struggles over the years haven’t all come down to poor funding, of course. The brain is not the monolithic organ that calling it “the brain” implies. Every adult human brain comprises a network of 100 billion or so neurons, little electrical machines perfectly understandable on a cellular level and utterly baffling in how they can team up vastly to form perceptions, plans, and memories, let alone consciousness. As far as brain-machine research goes, the best we can do today involves listening to how and where all these neurons that define an individual’s brain (be it lab-mouse, monkey, or human volunteer) crackle with electricity when watching, performing, or thinking about some task, and then calibrating machines to respond to these bursts as input.
Not to make any of that seem easy — the brain puts up a fight against any attempt to eavesdrop on the privately electrical murmurings among its constituent neurons. Researchers have long been able to record and study the firings of individual neurons by sliding electrodes into the brain, but this approach invariably degrades as the invaded area scars over. A more modern technique that Brain Electric describes places a small web of electrodes on the top of the ceberebum, an improvement over the old style in both its lesser invasiveness and its ability to listen to a host of neurons passing their opaque messages around. But even then, the brain — which Gay delights in calling “flan-like” several times within this book — sloshes merrily around in the skull during our daily activities, and a particularly hard jolt can dislodge this delicate device, putting it too far away from its target neurons to do any good.
These challenges continue on the outside of the skull, too. Even though research proves that a primate’s mind can embrace tools as personal extensions, literally embodying them (a phenomenon I know I’ve experienced without irony through my smartphone), asking it to treat an obviously foreign object as a replacement for a biological limb can make the brain balk. Fascinatingly, the paralyzed woman in the coffee-bottle trials could often recover the arm from a period of unresponsiveness by trying the motions again with her eyes closed, giving her brain a break from the sometimes distressing paradox of a cold metal arm carrying out the instructions issued to its unmoving biological one.
I would have liked to have seen the book spend less time on interpersonal drama and more on further exploring, say, one blustery researcher’s chapter-ending and chillingly anarcho-capitalist statement about how, through shrewd acquisition of medical technology patents, they “own” the space between every person’s skull and dura mater. But I did enjoy learning what I did about the underlying science, and the frustrations and setbacks on many fronts that help explain the lack of the cinema-ready robotic limbs we have for so long easily imagined, and which news reports have for many years suggested as imminent.