The sixth most popular issue in our second annual poll of Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology is "human-machine interfaces," with roughly 10% of the total votes. Below we've provided more information about this topic to serve as a resource to students, educators, journalists, policy makers, and concerned citizens.

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Human-machine interfaces

Brain-Computer interface (Photo credit: NASA)

Thus far, the main purpose for developing brain-computer interfaces has been to allow amputees and those who suffer from paralysis to mentally control a mobile robot or robotic prosthesis. They have already made possible some remarkable feats, such as partial restoration of hearing in the deaf, direct brain control of a prosthesis, implanting false memories in a rat, and downloading a rat’s memory of how to press a lever to get food and then uploading the memory after the original memory has been chemically destroyed. If this sounds like science fiction, consider that we’ve already moved beyond the interface technology and into nanoscale wiring implanted in synthetic tissue. A joint MIT, Harvard, and Boston Children’s Hospital research team led by Robert Langer, Charles Lieber, and Daniel Kohane developed a technique for growing synthetic biological tissue on a substrate containing biocompatible, nanoscale wires. This announcement came seven weeks after the announcement in London of the first ever successful implantation of a synthetic organ, a fully-functional trachea grown from the patient’s own stem cells, work led by the pioneering researcher, Paolo Macchiarini. And if we can implant wiring, then, in principle, we can turn the body or any part of it into a computer. But while most of us have no problem with prosthetic limbs, even those directly actuated by the brain, nor with pace makers, or cochlear implants, we may feel uncomfortable becoming part machine. At what point does the interface between body and machine dissolve? When we can make our bodies part machine, is it necessary to redefine personhood? Will we all be assimilated?

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General Info

Brain-computer interface

Brain-Computer Interface stories from Science Daily

Human Machine Interface Market Is Expected to Exceed USD 5,579.0 Million by 2019 (NASDAQ Global Wire)

I Sing the Body Electric (Science Matters)

Mind Plus Machine: Brain-Computer Interfaces Let You Move Things with a Thought (Slate)


Human-machine interfaces in disabled patients

Federal Robotics Initiative Gives $1 Million to Make Brain-Controlled Exoskeletons (Popular Science)

In Breakthrough Study, Paralyzed Patients Move a Robotic Arm With Their Own Thoughts (Popular Science)

Paralyzed Rats Take 1,000 Computer-Controlled Steps (Mashable)

Music Is All In the Mind: A Brain–Computer Interface Allows Paralysed Patients to Play Music with Brainpower Alone (Nature News)

Mind-Controlled Robotic Arm Has Skill and Speed of Human Limb (Reuters)

Other (more sci-fi) uses of human-machine interfaces

Brain cap

Computer-Brain Interfaces Making Big Leaps (NYT)

Enhancing Virtues: Intelligence (Part 4): Brain Machines (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies)

Don’t Say a Word, Think It (New Indian Express)

Thought-Guided Helicopter Takes Off (BBC News)

It’s Like They’re Reading My Mind: How Next-Generation Apps Will Market Your Brainwaves (Slate)

Brain Computer Interface Used to Control the Movement and Actions of an Android Robot (DigInfo TV)

Robot Jurisprudence: How to Judge a ’Bot; Why it’s Covered (The Economist)

Half Man, Half Machine: Becoming Robotic (Ask A Biologist)

Thought-Controlled Quadcopter Takes to the Skies (New Scientist)