Conceptually, bioelectronics is straightforward: Get the nervous system to tell the body to heal itself. But of course it’s not that simple. “What we’re trying to do here is completely novel,” says Pedro Irazoqui, a professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue University, where he’s investigating bioelectronic therapies for epilepsy. Jay Pasricha, a professor of medicine and neurosciences at Johns Hopkins University who studies how nerve signals affect obesity, diabetes and gastrointestinal-motility disorders, among other digestive diseases, says, “What we’re doing today is like the precursor to the Model T.” ... The biggest challenge is interpreting the conversation between the body’s organs and its nervous system, according to Kris Famm, who runs the newly formed Bioelectronics R. & D. Unit at GlaxoSmithKline, the world’s seventh-largest pharmaceutical company. “No one has really tried to speak the electrical language of the body,” he says. Another obstacle is building small implants, some of them as tiny as a cubic millimeter, robust enough to run powerful microprocessors. Should scientists succeed and bioelectronics become widely adopted, millions of people could one day be walking around with networked computers hooked up to their nervous systems. And that prospect highlights yet another concern the nascent industry will have to confront: the possibility of malignant hacking. As Anand Raghunathan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue, puts it, bioelectronics “gives me a remote control to someone’s body.”
New research puts us on the cusp of brain-to-brain communication. Could the next step spell the end of individual minds? ... we’ve moved beyond merely thinking orders at machinery. Now we’re using that machinery to wire living brains together. Last year, a team of European neuroscientists headed by Carles Grau of the University of Barcelona reported a kind of – let’s call it mail-order telepathy – in which the recorded brainwaves of someone thinking a salutation in India were emailed, decoded and implanted into the brains of recipients in Spain and France (where they were perceived as flashes of light). ... What are the implications of a technology that seems to be converging on the sharing of consciousness? ... It would be a lot easier to answer that question if anyone knew what consciousness is. There’s no shortage of theories. ... Their models – right or wrong – describe computation, not awareness. There’s no great mystery to intelligence; it’s easy to see how natural selection would promote flexible problem-solving, the triage of sensory input, the high-grading of relevant data (aka attention). ... If physics is right – if everything ultimately comes down to matter, energy and numbers – then any sufficiently accurate copy of a thing will manifest the characteristics of that thing. Sapience should therefore emerge from any physical structure that replicates the relevant properties of the brain.