Mind Out of Body

By Miguel A. L. Nicolelis

Illustration by Kenn Brown, Mondolithic Studios

In an exclusive excerpt from his new book, a pioneering neuroscientist
argues that brain-wave control of machines will allow the paralyzed
to walk and portends a future of mind melds and thought downloads

Excerpt adapted from Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines—and How It Will Change Our Lives

Almost every time one of my scientific manuscripts returned from the mandatory peer-review process during the past three decades, I had to cope with the inevitable recommendation that all scraps of speculative thinking about our ability to interface brains and machines should be removed from the papers. More often than not, other neuroscientists who reviewed these papers before publication did not wish to entertain the notion that this research could lend support to more daring scientific dreams in the future. During those painful reckonings, I would fantasize about the day when I could rescue those speculative ideas and liberate them for others to consider and contemplate. Our progress in the laboratory means that the time to tell others has finally arrived.

While I have been confronting the ultraconservative culture of academia, a number of science-fiction writers and movie directors have been speculating unreservedly and at times overindulging in the excesses of their fertile imaginations. During 2009 alone, two Hollywood mega productions, Surrogates and Avatar, portrayed the stereotype of scientists controlling, harming, killing and conquering people with their technological wizardry. In these films, brain-machine interfaces allowed human beings to live, love and fight by proxy. Their full-body avatars were left to do the hard work of roaming the universe and, in some cases, seeking to annihilate an entire alien race on behalf of their human masters.

Let me present an alternative view on the coming Age of the Machines. After working and thinking long and hard about the impact of brain-wave-controlled robots, often called brainmachine interfaces, I see a future filled with blunt optimism and eager anticipation, rather than one plagued by gloom and calamity. Perhaps because so little about the true dimensions of this future can be conceived with certainty, I feel an intense calling to embrace the amazing opportunities that freeing our brains from the limits of our terrestrial bodies can bring to our species. In fact, I wonder how anyone could think otherwise, given the tremendous humanistic prospects that brain-machine interface research promises to unleash. To continue reading, click here to download the full Mind out of Body (book excerpt) PDF.