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Neuromorphic Computing and Brain Chips— Neuromedicine Innovation or Pandora’s Box?

a photo of a neuromorphic computing material that looks like one of the brain chips available today

Though you may not realize it, more than 40,000 computer-brain interfaces have already been employed in healthcare today. Thus, to say computer-brain interfaces are something new would be inaccurate. But compared to what the future of neuromedicine holds, these types of interfaces are quite rudimentary. The real game-changer awaits us in the form of silicon brains and computer-brain connections. From neuromorphic computing to implanted brain chips, human—and machine—intelligence is about to take a quantum leap.

These incredible innovations offer tremendous insights into how the brain works. And they introduce incredible opportunities for creativity, complex problem solving, robotics and healthcare.

But at the same time, serious concerns exist. In addition to privacy and security risks, new problems could also arise from superintelligence. The question is how these advances in technology and science will be managed when it comes to being socially responsible.

Understanding Neuromorphic Computing and Brain Chips

At the current time, the two technologies of neuromorphic computing and brain chips are somewhat separated in terms of industries. Neuromorphic computing refers more to the pursuit of creating brain-like structures using silicon as a base. In these systems, individual silicon chips seek to function like individual brain neurons. Thus, ultimately, an actual silicon brain using neuromorphic computing would mimic a human’s brain functionally.

Brain chips, on the other hand, are being used to harness the power of the neuron in a single chip. But these pursuits are looking to use brain chips to foster connections to computing systems to improve human function. In doing so, human consciousness would have access to all the vast information and processing power available. Therefore, to say it in simple words, neuromorphic computing strives to give machines and robotics the power of the human brain. Meanwhile, brain chips seek to enhance human intelligence through connections to computing and information technologies.

cartoon of a doctor challenging a life-size brain with neuromorphic computing
Can neuromorphic computing strive to give machines and robotics the power of the human brain?

Brain Chips in Neuromedicine Today and Future Opportunities

The use of brain chips in neuromedicine is not new. The original work in this area was pursued by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in military veterans. Today, thousands of brain chips have been implanted as part of brain-computer interfaces to enhance function. These are commonly used in patients with stroke and epilepsy to activate or deactivate areas of the brain. They are also used with robotic prosthetics in amputees to promote movement and mobility.

The use of computer chips has not been limited to brain chips, however. The computing power of these tiny pieces of technology has also been attractive to pharmaceutical companies. In fact, more than 40 different pills that have chips inside are currently in use. These chips provide data concerning medication adherence, the body’s chemistry and more in advancing care. But these are the early uses of these technologies that will likely advance rapidly in the near future.

Notably, one of these future opportunities relates to accessing data via a brain chip. Dr. Moran Cerf, a business professor, and neuroscientist at Northwestern University predicts major changes in as little as 5 years. Specifically, he anticipates people will soon have implanted brain chips that will enable advanced intelligence through web and computing technology access. Instead of you having to look at your smartphone, your brain chips would provide the information instantaneously. This case has notable applications in neuromedicine and everyday life.

The Promise of Neuromorphic Computing for the Future

While brain chips enhance human functioning and intelligence, neuromorphic computing gives machines a potential advantage.

Numerous companies are pursuing neuromorphic computing including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Applied Brain Research, Intel and more. Advances in neuromorphic computing include creating chips that can handle all the computing power needed for most activities. And it enables machine learning at a chip level rather than at a processor level.

The notable benefit of neuromorphic computing is eliminating data transfers to servers while also allowing on-demand activity only. As a result, the need for cloud computing and server processing would be dramatically reduced. In addition, processing speed would be tremendously enhanced with significantly less energy required. This fact would enable machines and robots to completely function autonomously while having greater learning capacity. While the use of robotics with neuromorphic computing has clear neuromedicine advantages, many others can be anticipated as well.

Breakthrough Innovations for Society or Pandora’s Box?

With implanted brain chips that provide information and function to individuals, privacy and cybersecurity issues become notable concerns. But the real issues facing society—and even humanity itself—may be those that are still undiscovered. Elon Musk in pursuing his company’s brain-machine interfaces at Neuralink has expressed a need for government oversight in these areas. Likewise, Dr. Moran Cerf has noted that granting superintelligence to some could create social gaps and new discriminations. If the wealthy alone could afford such technologies, the potential repercussion these may have on social fabrics are noteworthy.

Other concerns regarding neuromorphic computing relate to how these advances will influence artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The field of neuromorphic computing is still in its infancy. But unleashing the power of the brain, or the neuron specifically, onto a computer chip still has unknown effects on singularity and machine autonomy. Indeed, these advances offer great opportunities for neuromedicine and other sectors. But with these developments come tremendous responsibility and caution. Balancing these issues will likely be critical as we move into this brave new world.

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