Towards an operating system for brain hacking

Electronic devices that interface directly with the brain are now being produced by labs around the world but each new device tends to work in a completely different way. An article in Technology Review argues that we need an agreed neural operating system so brain-machine interfaces can more easily work together.

Although current devices tend only to measure brain activity or stimulate cortical areas, it won’t be very long before devices typically do both – detecting and reacting to neural states – possibly forming a dynamic network of electronic devices that regulate brain activity.

To avoid the ‘Mac vs PC problem of the brain’, neuroscientist Ed Boyden highlights the importance of having devices that speak a common language to avoid both wasted scientific effort and potentially dangerous miscommunication.

Some examples of this kind of “brain coprocessor” technology are under active development, such as systems that perturb the epileptic brain when a seizure is electrically observed, and prosthetics for amputees that record nerves to control artificial limbs and stimulate nerves to provide sensory feedback. Looking down the line, such system architectures might be capable of very advanced functions–providing just-in-time information to the brain of a patient with dementia to augment cognition, or sculpting the risk-taking profile of an addiction patient in the presence of stimuli that prompt cravings.

Given the ever-increasing number of brain readout and control technologies available, a generalized brain coprocessor architecture could be enabled by defining common interfaces governing how component technologies talk to one another, as well as an “operating system” that defines how the overall system works as a unified whole–analogous to the way personal computers govern the interaction of their component hard drives, memories, processors, and displays.

Although not mentioned in the article, another advantage of a common platform for brain devices would be security, as current devices as often completely open and designed to be easily controllable from the outside.

Link to TechReview article on ‘Brain Coprocessors’.

7 thoughts on “Towards an operating system for brain hacking”

  1. I don’t believe that programming the brain at large scale would be possible in short-term !

    However, I just want to address two important questions :
    * why humans would need a global operating system connected to their brain ?
    * What are ethical issues of using this kind of device ?

    It is necessary to answer these questions before developing such systems.

    And in my opinion there is too much ethical issues compared to beneficial promises.

  2. uglaublich: it’s not that all humans need a global operating system connected to the brain, it’s that implants that are already being placed in the brain, such as a cochlear implant for deafness, or a stimulation device for Parkinson’s need operating systems.

    If all devices have different operating systems, then devices cannot talk to each other, or updates to an existing device might not work.

    I should also like to point out that more attention should be paid to the security of these devices as well. Denning et al wrote a sobering paper last year on the vulnerability of brain-computer interfaces to hacker attacks.

    1. Hi M. Greene,

      I agree with the fact that some electronic implants are in use for epilepsy or Parkinson disease. And I understand how these devices can improve patients’ lives…

      But thse implants are quite “simple” because they operate in a rudimentary (although very efficient) way… for example applying a continuous stimulation at a specific frequency on a specific brain area.

      But the development of distributed and communicating components over the brain with extended read/write abilities on it, is a really serious ethical concern.

      Continuing in this way, we can imagine devices which could impact personality, decision making or emotional states in a greater extent than it was never done before.

  3. I’ve always said I’ll be first in line for version 2 of general purpose brain coprocessors (even if just I/O mechanisms). But it’s not stability or features I’d be waiting for, but security.

    Who’s brand will we trust for certifying this OS? Likely government, I’d imagine. Does any institution have credible expertise, here, or should the FDA should be hiring and experimenting (in the organizational sense)?

  4. I had a dream last night that: My brain got a computer virus, and I eraticated the file and shutdown my brains operating system!

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