I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to stories of technology that will allow us to communicate with our minds alone. A lot of what you read is purely speculative, still in the realm of science fiction. Then you have horrific headlines that remind us how far astray we might go in pursuit of these advances. Nobody who read about Elon Musk’s company Neuralink killing a bunch of monkeys — allegedly after they’d suffered “crude surgeries” and “extreme suffering,” per an animal welfare group — came away with much confidence in the project. (And critics have accused Musk of overhyping what putting a computer chip in your head might accomplish.)
But then, like a bolt from the blue, you get a truly astonishing account of a great leap forward. Something that gives you hope for the future of the species. A sign of our inexhaustible drive.
Yes, a 36-year-old man left in a locked-in state of total paralysis due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, has been mentally spelling out messages at the rate of one letter per minute. It’s not quite telepathy, but it’s an extraordinary breakthrough, achieved through a system of “two 64 microelectrode arrays in the supplementary and primary motor cortex,” the implantation of which the patient agreed to when still able to communicate with eye movements. According to a paper by the neurologists who managed this, it’s the first proof that a brain-computer interface, or BCI, can give voice to someone otherwise completely cut off from means of expression.
The technical side, of course, is well above the layperson’s understanding. However, the internet found the patient’s requests to be proof of a living legend — a dude among dudes.
Not only did this guy use groundbreaking machinery to order a beer, which has to be administered through a gastro-tube, but according to the session notes, he did this four times. He wanted to listen to the band Tool, “loud.” Aside from curry, he also registered a desire for goulash and sweet pea soup. (The patient is German, if you were wondering.) One message read “mama kopfmassage,” a request for a head massage from his mother. He also complimented the experimenters on their work and the ingenuity of the device, saying — and it’s impossible not to read in a tone of chummy endearment — “Boys, it works so effortlessly.”
Readers were also moved by a remark to his 4-year-old: “I love my cool son.” The paper goes on to describe him asking the boy, “Do you want to watch Disney’s Robin Hood with me?”
King behavior, top to bottom. Advocates for his own needs, and yet, despite all he’s been through, still warm, friendly, funny and loving. Could there be a more perfect testament to the human spirit? He knows his case is a landmark on the way to treatments and reconstructive procedures we can scarcely imagine today, and he’s having fun with it. He even gave them suggestions for how to improve the user experience!
I’m not sure why he, among locked-in patients, was selected for this study, but wow did they pick the right guy. In fact, he may have set the bar a little too high. Now I’m sort of worried the next person hooked up to this interface will sound like a jerk by comparison. But I suppose that’s the risk we take in pursuit of discovery.
Anyway, congrats to this hero. If we can set up a beer donation app, the next one’s on me.