ISIS Report 14/12/04
Get Ready for Matrix
Body & Mind Control Implants
Electronic medical implants are at least 50 years old, but new
devices are raising unforeseen ethical and social concerns.
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho calls for thorough
public debate and consultation before these devices are let loose on
sources for this
article are posted on ISIS members website.
Celebrity pain control
Hollywood comedian Jerry Lewis, now 78, has suffered from chronic back
pain for years until April 2001, when he received an implant. The pain
pacemaker delivers low-voltage stimulation to his spinal cord to block
the pain messages from reaching his brain, so he no longer feels pain.
Before that, he tried everything to quell his "37 years of constant
pain"; analgesics, steroids and cortisone, and was addicted for 13 years to the
painkiller Percodan. He was about to shoot himself when his young daughter
Danielle walked in and inadvertently brought him back to his senses.
That very day, he received a trial model of a neuro-stimulation device
with a hand-held control that sends electronic pulses to the affected nerves,
blocking the pain message to the brain. Within days, he underwent surgery to
implant electrode leads in his spine and a battery pack just under the skin
near his left hip. And he has been singing the praises of the device ever
Jerry Lewis is living in a kind of virtual reality. His back problem
still exists, but he is made to think it doesnt.
The implant costs about $10 000 plus doctor and hospital fees, and is
covered by most HMOs and other insurance plans. It is said to come with a small
risk of infection, and patients with implants cannot have MRI screenings
because the heat on the electrodes metal tips could cause serious nerve
Could a non-implanted, more easily controlled version do just as well?
After all, the trial (pre-implant) model appeared to have been good enough to
convince Jerry Lewis to accept the implant.
In fact, implanted devices are known to have a range of electronic,
mechanical and other problems that has resulted in massive product recalls by
the FDA (see "Electronic medical
implants promises & perils", this series).
Yet newer implants that interface with computers have been approved,
which are raising additional unforeseen ethical and social concerns.
Thought control helps quadriplegic
Brain-computer interfaces are developing rapidly to help paralysed
people regain control of their lives and the ability to communicate.
A quadriplegic 25 year-old man had a chip implanted into his brain in
June 2004; and by October, he was able to control a computer to check his
e-mail and play computer games simply by thinking. He can also turn light on
and off and control a television while talking and moving his head. All of
which is pretty impressive.
The chip, BrainGate, is developed by Massachusetts company
Cyberknetics, based on research at Brown University, Rhode Island. Up to five
more patients will be recruited for further research into the safety and
potential utility of the device.
John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience at Brown University and
co-founder of Cyberkinetics in 2001, said BrainGate could help paralysed people
control wheelchairs and communicate using e-mail and internet-based phone
systems. "Our ultimate goal is to develop the BrainGate System so that it can
be linked to many useful devices," he said.
Donoghue received an innovation award from Discover magazine for
Donoghues initial research, published in the journal
Nature in 2002, involved an implant to a monkeys brain that
enabled it to play a simple pinball computer game remotely. The four-millimeter
square chip, placed on the surface of the motor-cortex in the monkeys
brain contained 100 electrodes each thinner than a hair, and inserted into
individual brain cells to detect its electrical activity. The implanted chip is
connected to a computer via a small wire attached to a pedestal mounted on the
This invasive brain implant carries risks of infection and of neurons
dying. And if it goes wrong, it cannot be easily removed.
Another research team has raised hopes that brain implants may not be
necessary at all for brain computer interface.
Four people put on an electrode-studded "thinking cap" and were able to
control a computer with their thoughts. No surgery or implant was required. The
US researchers reported their experiment in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences in December 2004.
"The results show that people can learn to use scalp-recorded
electroencephalogram rhythms [brain waves] to control rapid and accurate
movement of a cursor in two dimensions," wrote Jonathan Wolpaw and Dennis
McFarland of the New York State Department of Health and State University of
New York, Albany.
The thinking caps were tested on four people, two partly paralysed men
who used wheelchairs, a healthy man and a healthy woman. In the experiments,
the four volunteers faced a video screen wearing the cap with 64 electrodes
against the scalp to record the brain waves.
The key was a special adaptive algorithm - a computer programme - that
successively optimised the translation of filtered brain signals into what the
users wanted the computer to do. It took practice, but all four learned to move
a cursor on the screen in two dimensions, vertically and horizontally. The two
disabled men were better at the task, possibly because they were more strongly
motivated, or because they have a brain forced to be more adaptable to cope
with the injuries that left them paralysed.
"The impressive non-invasive multidimensional control achieved in the
present study suggests that a non-invasive brain control interface could
support clinically useful operation of a robotic arm, a motorised wheelchair,
or a neuroprosthesis," the researchers wrote. In movement time, precision, and
accuracy, the results are comparable to those with invasive implants.
Getting ready for matrix?
So, is a non-implanted thinking cap an unadulterated good? For the
individuals concerned, no doubt. It is non-invasive and does not require
surgery to remove. It can be put on and taken off at will. With practice, and
with robotic machines under their control, the users could be more
able-bodied than almost anyone else.
But brain-computer interface raises new concerns. Could employers or
government agents or the police make people wear thinking caps while being
interviewed so their very thoughts could be revealed? Could a
disloyal thought about ones boss cost a job?
And further down the line, could a death wish be literally
used to kill people you dont like?
Could an evil warlord set off an atomic missile attack just by thinking?
Or enslave the entire world via the internet, when people could be
tagged and implanted with nano-devices without their knowledge?
Brave New World surveillance
New electronic tags are indeed here, that enable all ones records
to be instantly recalled, and reciprocally, potentially allows a computer to
know exactly where one is 24 hours a day.
In October 2004, a US company, Applied Digital Solutions in Delray
Beach, Florida, got the green light to implant a chip in a persons arms
that can give instant access to the individuals medical records.
The VeriChip, the size of a grain of rice, is implanted by
injecting under the skin. The company received approval from the Food and Drug
Administration to market the chip in the United States.
VeriChip is a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag containing a
chip encoded with a unique identification number and a tiny antenna. To read
the tag, a scanner that emits radio waves is passed over it. The antenna
detects the radio waves emitted by the scanner and generates a tiny electrical
current in the chip to beam back a radio signal that reveals the ID number.
The company says that the tiny implant could be used to extract a
patients personal and medical records from a secure database, and could
prove useful when, for example, someone is unconscious or has numerous records
at different clinics that must be pulled together in an emergency.
But critics point out that tagged bracelets or cards carrying medical
information are just as effective as an implanted chip. They warn that the
chips might be used to compulsorily tag and track prisoners, or even foreigners
visiting a country in the name of fighting terrorism. (Some of us have had our
fingerprints and iris patterns recorded at immigration visiting the United
"Theyve crossed a line by placing it under peoples skin,"
says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil
liberties group in Washington DC.
RFID tags have been around for over 50 years, although many of them are
larger, battery-powered and actively transmit data carried on their chips.
Smaller, cheaper passive chips that only release information
when scanned have been developed over the past decade, and are now poised to
invade many aspects of our lives. As wireless technology increasingly intrudes
into workplaces and homes, a tagged person will not even be aware that he or
she is being scanned.
"The technology is very much coming to the forefront," says Dan Mullen,
president of Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility, a trade
group based in Warrendale, Pennsylvania.
Most people are already using RFID tags unawares; as in security badges
that allow access to buildings, or in keys that communicate with a car to allow
only the driver in. Many companies are also starting to use the chips to track
goods shipped from manufacturers to their destination, and avoid them being
mislaid or misplaced.
RFID tags are also routinely implanted in pets, so they can be
identified if lost. But VeriChip is the first implant designed for use in
people, and some people have already been tagged. The Attorney General of
Mexico and some of his staff had chips implanted to limit access to a secure
Dr. Michael Antoniou of Guys Hospital, Kings College London,
says, "This is really frightening; if this gets over here then its
totally the end of our rights and freedoms!"
The time to debate is now
In 2002, ISIS launched a discussion paper,
Convention on Knowledge, jointly with SGR (Scientists for Global
Responsibility), INES (International Network of Engineers and Scientists), TWN
(Third World Network) and Tebtebba (an indigenous peoples network based in the
Philippines), to ensure that all forms of knowledge, including western science,
should be used responsibly for the good of all.
In that paper, we have explicitly warned against implantable
(nano)devices and prostheses that cannot be easily removed if the individuals
so chose. We also stated that people should not be coerced into accepting those
There is an urgent need for thorough public debate and consultation
before these devices are let loose on society.