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New Thoughts-to-Text Technology: Biomedical Utility or Posthuman Progress?

I have “fat fingers.” The excessive width of my fingers causes me much consternation every time I try to type out a text message using my iPhone’s keypad. Often, I end up striking the wrong keys, producing gibberish instead of the intended words.

Thankfully, technology helps. Despite the autocorrect horrors that haunt all of us, the autocorrect and auto-complete features help me overcome the typing errors that stem from my excessive finger width.

The speech-to-text feature also helps—although I often find myself doing quite a bit of editing each time I use this feature. If only the texting app could read my mind and convert my thoughts into a perfectly typed message.

Thanks to the work of a research team from Howard Hughes Medical Center (HHMC), I just might get my wish. These bioengineers have developed a brain-computer interface (BCI) that can convert the thoughts of a test subject into text.1 This work stands as a landmark achievement in biomedicine and will undoubtedly help patients with locked-in syndrome to regain their ability to communicate.

But this work also carries significance beyond its biomedical utility. For some, it points to a future in which humans and machines will become integrated, forming posthumans with capabilities that exceed our natural biological limits. In fact, some people associated with the transhumanist movement see technologies such as the one developed by the HHMC scientists as integral to our “salvation” as individuals and as a species.

How should Christians respond to the development of BCIs and biotechnologies like it?

Before I offer my thoughts, it will be well worth our while to better understand BCI technology and explore the HHMC scientists’ recent accomplishments.


BCIs
BCIs are electronic devices that provide an interface between the neuro-electrical activities of the user’s brain and computer and machine hardware and software. Through this interaction, a collaboration forms between the user and the BCI. Users either learn to use BCIs to control computer software and hardware with their thoughts or the BCIs can be programmed (using machine-learning algorithms) to extract the users’ intent from the electrical activity in their brain.

BCIs hold the potential to transform medicine in exciting ways. Researchers have already demonstrated the potential of BCIs to allow patients with lockedin syndrome to communicate by controlling software using a cursor to point and click. Biomedical scientists have also demonstrated the utility of BCIs to assist quadriplegic and paraplegic patients who learn to control exoskeletons with their thoughts. Several high-profile studies have shown that amputees, likewise, can learn to control robotic prosthetic limbs with their thoughts.

A Thought-to-Text BCI
As impressive as these applications are, they all rely on gross motor movements. The HHMC investigators wondered if BCIs could be used to decipher user intent when the activities require rapid, highly dexterous movements, such as handwriting.

To probe this question, the researchers designed a set of experiments that involved a single test subject: a 65-year-old male who suffered a spinal cord injury years ago that paralyzed him from the neck down. They surgically implanted a BCI (consisting of an array of electrodes) in the test subject’s motor cortex. Each electrode could detect the activity of 100 to 200 individual neurons.

The researchers then asked the test subject to imagine writing each of the letters of the English alphabet while they recorded neural activity. Using a multivariate statistical method (principal component analysis), they were able to discern clear patterns in the electrical signals coming from the test subject’s brain as he imagined writing each letter. The researchers observed that the neural activity formed a unique signature for each letter of the alphabet. They also observed consistency in the neural activity from trial to trial.

Next, they performed a second set of experiments in which they asked the test subject to imagine writing a letter. Afterward, they converted the neural activity pattern into a two-dimensional shape that appeared on a computer screen. In every instance, the resulting shape closely corresponded to recognizable letters.

The research team extended the study by asking the test subject to imagine writing full sentences. In addition to the 26 letters of the alphabet, the researchers added 5 additional characters that allowed for punctuation. They developed a neural network that converted the test subject’s neural activity into a probability that a particular letter was being imagined at that moment in time. They trained the neural network by having the test subject imagine handwriting approximately 600 sentences consisting of over 31,000 characters.

After training the neural network, they tested it for accuracy by asking the test subject to imagine handwriting sentences that appeared on a computer screen. They projected the neural network output onto another computer screen. They learned that the test subject could “write” 90 characters per minute with an error rate of around 5%. By comparison, using a point-and-click BCI, test subjects can typically select around 40 characters per minute, and the average smartphone user can type about 115 characters per minute. By using an autocorrect feature, the error rate dropped to 2%.

After attaining this success, they asked the test subject to respond to several open-ended questions by imagining handwriting his answers. They measured the resulting error rate for this exercise at around 8%, with the error rate dropping to only 2% using an autocorrect algorithm.

The research team also discovered that they needed to recalibrate the neural network each day. This step was necessary because of (1) the brain’s neuroplasticity, (2) small but significant changes in the positioning of the BCI microarrays in the motor cortex, and (3) changes in the performance of the electrodes of the microarray over time. The research team learned that they could successfully recalibrate the neural network by asking the test subject to imagine writing 50 sentences. They also learned that if the time between calibrations was short enough, they could recalibrate the neural network by asking the user to imagine writing as few as 10 sentences.

This advance is nothing short of amazing. It represents a significant milestone in BCI technology and offers hope for patients with locked-in syndrome and similar medical conditions.

But as noted, this advance also bears significance beyond the obvious biomedical applications. It paves the way for the use of neural implants as a human enhancement technology that legitimizes the transhumanist movement.

BCIs as Human Enhancement Technologies
One technologist banking on BCIs as the means to enhance humans is Elon Musk, who helped establish the company Neuralink in 2016. The chief goal of this company is to design and build neural implants that can sync with the human brain, affording humans the ability to control computers, electronic devices, and machines by using only their thoughts.

Like many others working with BCIs, Musk and his colleagues at Neuralink share a humanitarian motive for advancing this technology. They hope that their neural implants will soon make their way into clinical settings, providing the means to treat a number of debilitating diseases and injuries. They also see neural implants as the next generation of technology that will provide a more seamless interface between the human user and the electronic devices that are part of our lives.

But Musk has a much greater imperative for developing BCI technologies other than easing human suffering or developing futuristic technology. He is afraid that if we don’t, humanity’s existence will be jeopardized. Musk believes that by 2025, artificial intelligence (AI) will surpass human intellectual capacity. When this happens, Musk fears that we will become like pets to the very AI systems we invent, running the risk of becoming subjects of AI overlords. In short, Musk sees AI as the greatest existential threat to humanity.

For Musk, the only way to stave off the threat from AI is to develop neural implants that augment our brain’s capacity for cognition and the storage and retrieval of information and memories. Interfacing our brains with computer hardware and software will give us superhuman intellectual capacities. It would even allow our brains to make use of machine learning algorithms, melding our minds with AI technology.

Musk’s vision for Neuralink’s technology has made him a leading advocate for the transhumanist agenda.

Transhumanism
Advocates of the transhumanist vision maintain that we have an obligation to use advances in biotechnology and bioengineering to overcome our biological limitations and correct our biological flaws. Transhumanists see science and technology as the means to alleviate pain and suffering and to promote human flourishing.

Using science and technology to mitigate pain and suffering and to drive human progress is nothing new. In fact, it is an ideal shared across many cultures and over many centuries. But transhumanists desire more. They insist that we use advances in biotechnology and bioengineering to take control of our own evolution with the grand vision of creating new and improved versions of human beings. They hope to usher in a posthuman futurea utopia of our own design.

In fact, many transhumanists go one step further, arguing that advances in gene editing, BCIs, and antiaging technologies could extend our life expectancy perhaps indefinitely, allowing us to attain practical immortality. In essence, transhumanism has a religious element to it, with science and technology serving as the pathway to salvation.

BCIs: A Source of Hope and Salvation?
Scientific advances such as those achieved at the HHMC (or at Neuralink), inspire hope in transhumanists that one day soon BCI technology will enhance our mental capabilities beyond natural biological limits. Maybe one day this technology will afford us the means to make ourselves more intelligent and psychologically well adjusted. Perhaps in the near future, we will be able to seamlessly download any bit of information we need to our brains or upload, retrieve, and share our knowledgealong with our thoughts and memoriesto the cloud or to other BCI users. BCI technology may even make it possible for each of us to control electronic devices in remote locations throughout the world. Maybe one day we will even be able to link our minds with the minds of others to work as a collective or to share our thoughts and feelings more intimately.

And, the thinking goes, if these types of enhancements can be achieved, then maybe it will soon be possible for us to upload our conscience into a machine framework, attaining a type of digital immortality. This prospect has made science and technology the means of salvation for a growing number of people. The hope is that science and technology will allow us to conquer death and achieve a type of immortality—even if it is a digital one. And this prospect fuels the religious component of the transhumanism movement.

But can the transhumanist agenda deliver on its promises?

I am skeptical for a number of reasons that my coauthor Kenneth Samples and I detail in our book, Humans 2.0. One reason relates to the myth of progress.

The Myth of Progress
Philosopher and scientist Michael Burdett argues that the transhumanism movement is built on the techno-scientific myth of progress.2 (In this context, Burdett uses the term myth to refer to a symbolic story that offers a way of interpreting the world.) Burdett defines the myth of progress as the belief that improvements have occurred throughout history/society/humanity and will continue uninterrupted into the future.

Forming the basis for utopian thinking, the myth of progress drives the belief that, with time, humans will:
• develop a better understanding of reality
• improve the conditions under which we live
• produce flourishing economies
• realize social justice
• reduce morbidity and premature mortality

The myth of progress flows out of the Enlightenment. For many scholars, this idea stands in opposition to religion because the myth of progress finds its undergirding in rationalism and science. Transhumanism goes even further. The quest for a posthuman future radicalizes the myth of progress to the point of ironically imparting to it the characteristics of a religion.

A Historical Critique of the Myth of Progress
A thoughtful analysis of recent human history provides good reasons to doubt the myth of progress. For example, industrial nations—built upon the edifice of science and technology—suffer disproportionately from diseases, addictions, suicides, crime, and bankruptcy—the unintended consequences of technology.3 But, perhaps the most compelling reason to question the myth of progress comes from the events that define the previous century.

The twentieth century saw two of the bloodiest conflicts in human historyWorld War I and World War IIseparated from each other by just two decades. World War II culminated with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. And leading up to World War II was the economic collapse of the Great Depression. Burdett points out that while philosophical questioning of the myth of progress is important, “the actual events of the 20th century have done the most to erode at this confidence in the myth of progress…unhinging the cool, calm, and collected intellectual belief in the inexorable advancement of humankind, given that the core of civilization had committed such atrocities.”4

The sobering truth is the fact that techno-scientific advances were responsible for the creation of the very technologies that were used to cause the wide-scale loss of life and property during two world wars. A principle emerges from this analysis: the more advanced and powerful technology becomes, the more devastating its unintended consequences and its misuses can be. The technology used to generate energy at a nuclear power plant is the same technology used to cause untold devastation with nuclear weapons. And, though energy generated at a nuclear power plant is far cleaner for the environment than energy generated at a coal-burning plant, the environmental devastation caused by nuclear waste or a leak at a nuclear plant is far worse for the environment and for people than the pollution emitted from a coal-burning facility.

From Myth to Hope
The myth of progress is just that. It is a myth that fails to reflect reality. Given how powerful emerging biotechnologies and bioengineering advances have become, we should all be gravely concerned about the unintended consequences of these innovations and their potential misuse, even more so because of the growing interest in using these biomedical advances for human enhancement.

Let’s return to our original question. How should Christians respond to the development of BCIs and similar technologies?

To be sure, science and technology have improved our lives as human beings. Christians can confidently stand behind advances like neural networks for people with locked-in syndrome and conditions like it. In fact, as Christians it is appropriate to view science and technology as God’s providential gift to us. But science and technology have also caused an untold amount of suffering. For this reason, it is hard to envision how technoscience or transhumanism will ever lead us on a path to utopia and salvation. If it is salvation we seek, we must turn elsewhere.


Resources

Humans 2.0: Scientific, Philosophical, and Biblical Perspectives on Transhumanism by Fazale Rana with Ken Samples (book)

Will Elon Musk’s Neuralink Make It Possible to Control Electronic Devices with Our Minds?” by Fazale Rana (article)

A Christian Perspective on Living Electrodes” by Fazale Rana (article)

A Christian Perspective on Brain-Computer Interfaces” by Fazale Rana (article)

Does Transhumanism Refute Human Exceptionalism? A Response to Peter Clarke” by Fazale Rana (article)

Does Development of Artificial Intelligence Undermine Human Exceptionalism?” by Fazale Rana (article)

Is Faith in Progress Warranted?” by Mark Clark (article)

Endnotes

  1. Francis R. Willet et al., “High-Performance Brain-To-Text Communication Via Handwritin,” Nature 593 (May 2021): 249–254, doi:10.1038/s41586-021-03506-2.
  2. Michael S. Burdett, “The Religion of Technology: Transhumanism and the Myth of Progress,” in Religion and Transhumanism: The Unknown Future of Human Enhancement, ed. Calvin Mercer and Tracy J. Trothen (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2015), 130–149.
  3. David Valleau Curtis, “Iron Man and the Problem with Progress,” in Iron Man and Philosophy, ed. Mark D. White (New York: Wiley & Sons, 2010), 233–244.
  4. Burdett, “The Religion of Technology,” 130–149.