Of course, the only way to gauge the true potential of BCI is to implant a person in perfect health.
"There really hasn't been a fair trial of just what the system can do, what the brain can do," Kennedy says. "An ideal trial? That would be a normal person. But I wouldn't do it."
Not everyone embraces his reservations.
While most scientists working in BCI technology share Kennedy's mission to restore normalcy to the disabled, some have other plans. Just think. BCI technology could redefine "normal" not just for the disabled but for the able-bodied, too. Although no one besides Kennedy has worked on human subjects (with the exception of one scientist, who implanted a silicon chip in his own arm), some BCI work focuses on distinctly human — or is it superhuman? — enhancements.Miguel Nicolelis, at Duke University, and John Chapin, at the State University of New York Health Science Center, have implanted monkeys with an electrode that allows it to move a remote robotic arm. Using technology similar to Kennedy's, when the monkey moves its own limb, the electrode captures the signal and sends it to the robotic arm, too. For good measure, Nicolelis and Chapin even sent the signal over the Internet — so that when the monkey moves its arm, 600 miles away another robotic arm mimics the motion.
"[I]t seems reasonable to expect that [BCI] could trigger a revolution in the way future generations interact with computers, virtual objects and remote environments," Nicolelis wrote two years ago in Nature, "allowing never-before- experienced augmentation."
Clearly, Nicolelis and Chapin's work builds a foundation for prosthetics of the future (think of Luke Skywalker's realer-than-real prosthetic fingers wriggling at the end of The Empire Strikes Back). But the fact that their work is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense — and that they are working on another defense-funded project in which an implant has successfully programmed rats to, say, turn left on command — raises questions as to the uses of BCI outside the realm of medicine.
"It's something that should make us all wonder," says Ellen McGee, associate of bioethics at the Long Island Center for Ethics. What might the military want with this information? she asks. On whom would these devices be used? "People in the military are not always considered free subjects when the military decides to use a technology," she says.
In addition to any nefarious military operations, McGee wonders if BCI might ultimately create a schism between those who could use it to make them smarter — a new race of superhumans, say — and those who couldn't — the race of regular guys.
"I can only applaud all of Dr. Kennedy's work and hope for his continued success, because it has wonderful therapeutic implications," McGee says. "My concerns are more with the uses of the technology by people who may not have as many beneficent intentions."
There could come a day when man's idiosyncrasies and imperfections may be all but obscured by the computer he controls — and in turn controls him. It's possible to turn the tables on BCI's design, according to Kennedy, allowing the brain to receive signals in addition to sending them. In fact, Kennedy believes downloading information into the brain may be easier to master.
"Can we use more of our brain, make ourselves more powerful? Oh, definitely," Kennedy says. "It bothers me to think about. The people who want to be really powerful are the ones who are going to get that technology. Maybe people like that shouldn't be able to give orders."
Theodore Berger, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California, has no qualms about his intent to make the brain smarter and faster. He's working on a microchip that could give the brain more memory, which can benefit anyone from Alzheimer's patients to college professors.
He also believes it's possible to upload memory — an entire life's worth.
During an interview that aired on 48 Hours" last summer, Berger said it's possible to record on a computer chip man's every emotion.
"Everything?" the interviewer asked.
"I think everything," Berger answered.
"Fear, loathing, love, hate?"
"Sex appeal, sense of humor, everything?"
Kennedy's belief in what BCI can do stops short of Berger's. Thoughts are a different animal than brain signals that merely control body functions. Neuroscientists have not yet identified a specific point in the brain where thoughts originate — perhaps they occur all over. Thinking is more abstract than moving your left hand.