Whenever I hear that some awesome technology is “twenty years away” my eyebrow inadvertently raises with suspicion. Cold fusion, male birth control, flying cars, and the cure for most diseases are all twenty years away. Why? Because that’s the distance at which it’s genuinely impossible to extrapolate scientific advancement. So, when Will Rosellini, the CEO and President of MicroTransponder and consultant to the team developing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, told me that neuroprosthetic augmentation was about twenty years away, I was skeptical, but intrigued.
Guessing at which technologies will come to fruition requires the ability to determine how many intermediate technologies can reasonably be attained in a given amount of time. From there, one can extrapolate and make educated suppositions about when one could reasonably expect something like a life-like prosthetic arm would be possible.
Rosellini explained his process with DX:HR:
My job at Microtransponder in large part is writing near-term science fiction. I do this by combining all the failure modes from science, business, law etc…and then designing a research strategy to mitigate these risks and get new technologies into patients. With Deus Ex, I was given the task of explaining in a rigorous all of the player abilities in the game. To do this, I extrapolated where technologies would be moving in the next 20 years (to 2027, the start of the game). Most implantable neuroprosthetics take 10 years to get to market, so essentially I was forced to make 1 extra jump to foreseeable technologies.
So what are the background technologies that support this research? Are there any scary government projects with weird code names like MK-ULTRA and project ARTICHOKE that may give us some insight into where neuro-implants might be heading? You bet there are. Read on to learn about just how soon we can hope for retinal displays, neuro-integrated prosthetics, and mind-computer interfaces.
Q: Will, please tell me a little about your current experience, expertise, and the research you’ve been doing.
A: I have six advanced degrees spanning business, law, and science. Before I began these academic pursuits, I was a professional baseball pitcher in the Arizona Diamondbacks system. After retiring from baseball, I became fascinated with shrinking electronic devices to integrate into the nervous system and help patients with damaged nervous systems. To excel in this field of translational neurotechnology, I obtained the relevant business, accounting, and legal background to develop technology and raise capital for preclinical and clinical studies. While pursuing these deal-making skills, I sought the ability to evaluate the technical feasibility of neuroprosthetic systems. In particular, my degrees are an MBA, MS of Accounting, a JD, a Master’s of Computational Biology, a Master’s of Neuroscience, and a Master’s of Regulatory Science. I am in the final phases of a PhD in Neuroscience. My PhD work is focused on evaluating the safety and efficacy of a novel form of neurostimulation, called voltage-controlled capacitive discharge (VCCD), invented by Dr. Larry Cauller.
My company, Microtransponder, Inc. has been researching the therapeutic benefits of pairing Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) with a variety of rehabilitation tasks to treat several neurological disorders such as tinnitus, post stroke motor rehabilitation, phantom limb pain (PLP), and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We have developed a method to generate long lasting and spatially restricted changes to neural circuits using paired VNS. As of July 2011, MicroTransponder has implanted 5 patients in a proof of concept Tinnitus clinical trial in Belgium and the results have been encouraging and will be discussed later in this document. We have received several NIH grants for the animal research based on the robust nature of the scientific data. Our researcher Dr. Engineer recently published a paper in Nature, regarding the paired VNS therapy and its ability to reverse the tinnitus precept in rats (Engineer et al., 2011). Our VNS pairing method was reviewed in the April 2011 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine regarding the potential of our paired VNS therapy to treat a variety of neurological disorders. Our preclinical and clinical studies suggest that targeted plasticity using paired VNS therapy would be useful in many neurological disorders such as stoke, tinnitus and phantom limb pain in which plasticity is maladaptive.
Q: How did that impact your work on Deus Ex: Human Revolution?
A: I contacted the CEO of Eidos back in 2008 and explained that I was a big fan of the game and wanted to contribute however I could. My job at Microtransponder in large part is writing near-term science fiction. I do this by combining all the failure modes from science, business, law etc…and then designing a research strategy to mitigate these risks and get new technologies into patients. With Deus Ex, I was given the task of explaining in a rigorous all of the player abilities in the game. To do this, I extrapolated where technologies would be moving in the next 20 years (to 2027, the start of the game). Most implantable neuroprosthetics take 10 years to get to market, so essentially I was forced to make 1 extra jump to foreseeable technologies.
Q: There are several technologies in the game that rely on direct connections to a person’s nervous system. If you were to make a conservative estimate, how many years away is technology like retinal displays, neuro-integrated prosthetics, and mind-computer interfaces?
A: In the 1870s, Richard Caton, a British physiologist, began a series of experiments intended to measure the electrical output of the brains of living animals. He surgically exposed the brains of rabbits, dogs, and monkeys, and then used wires to connect their brains to an instrument that measured current. “The electrical currents of the gray matter appear to have a relation to its function,” he wrote in 1875, noting that different actions — chewing, blinking, or just looking at food — were each accompanied by electrical activity. This was the first evidence that the brain’s functions could be tapped into directly, without having to be expressed in sounds, gestures, or any of the other usual ways.
Since then we have seen the wide scale adoption of cardiac pacemaker (electricity into the heart), cochlear implants (electricity into the cochlea), spinal cord stimulators (electricity into the spinal cord), deep brain stimulation and a host of other nerves are targets for activation using a battery, wire and electrode.
In a direct fashion to the game, DOD research arm, DARPA has been working on direct peripheral and cortical neural interfaces for mechanical augmentations since 2003 in the DARPA Revolutionizing Prosthetics program.
Q: The writers of Deus Ex: Human Revolution are trying to tell a story, so sticking to science may have been difficult in places. Where do you feel you took the most creative license?
A: I think there was a nice balance between science and science fiction. We took some license on invisibility cloaks and the anti-gravity implementations. However, I still spent some researching this and there is some evidence that this field will be viable at some point in our lifetime.
Q: There is a good chance that augmentations will be created by large corporations, how do you think that will impact the development of useful medical prosthetics and artificial organs?
A: This is already the case, with over 1M “augmentations” in place. Our Vice-President Dick Cheney was a cyborg (he had a cardiac neurostimulation device). More interesting will be the propensity to abuse the technology, which is the case with any advanced technology. Checkout this article detailing the underground world of neuroenhancing drugs: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/04/27/090427fa_fact_talbot
The argument for implantable neuroprosthesis having the potential for abuse is not ripe yet. This is in part due to the state of the technology. As of now, no implantable is able to return all function back to the diseased nervous system. The government has the greatest potential to abuse the technology. It is now widely known that fear memories can be erased with animals. Some of that work has been done in our lab for the treatment of PTSD in soldiers (we did this in rats).
However, Project MK-ULTRA or MKULTRA is a government project that started in 1948 and studies mind control through chemical interrogation and neurostimulation. The project was first run by Sidney Gottlieb, Frank Olson and William Sargant. Although MK-ULTRA is most recognized with the LSD testing in the 1950’s and 1960’s, they have been involved with many other experiments in mind control related testing. MK-ULTRA has tested interrogation through fear of deadly animals and Subproject 54, which through “perfect concussion” tried to erase the memories of U.S. submarine crew. Some of the most secret projects in U.S. history all took place under MK-ULTRA, such as Projects Paperclip, Chatter, Bluebird and Artichoke. The usage of electric shock to the brain for the creation of amnesia with hypnosis was discussed by an ARTICHOKE document dated 3 December 1951: “[Deleted] is reported to be an authority on electric shock. He is a psychiatrist of considerable note. [Deleted] explained that electric shock might be of considerable interest to the ‘Artichoke’ type of work. He stated that the standard electric-shock machine (Reiter) could be used. He stated that using this machine with convulsive treatment, he could guarantee amnesia for certain periods of time, and particularly he could guarantee amnesia for any knowledge of use of the convulsive shock. He stated that the lower setting of the machine produced a different type of shock. When this lower current type of shock was applied without convulsion, it had the effect of making a man talk. He said that this type of shock produced in the individual excruciating pain. He stated that there would be no question that the individual would bequite willing to give information if threatened with the use of this machine. It was [Deleted]’s opinion that an individual could gradually be reduced through the use of electro-shock treatment to the vegetable level”(P. 44).
Q: What augmentation do you think has the most potential to benefit humanity?
A: I believe our targeted plasticity using vagus nerve stimulation might be the single greatest innovation to benefit patients coming out of the labs in the next 10 years. The idea that we can harness the brain’s natural plasticity and redirect to reverse disease states is a big idea that can really help patients.