Stories - Current challenges of neural nanotechnology: Developing brain-implants
The BrainCom project develops novel medical devices for restoration of speech and communication in aphasic patients suffering from upper spinal cord, brainstem or brain damage. At the same time the researchers also tackle the ethical aspects of the innovative technology.
The BrainCom project will design ultra-flexible cortical implants that will be able to perform large-scale recording and stimulation of the brain thanks to technologies based on nanomaterials. This collaborative research project, supported under the FET Proactive funding scheme, will foster a novel line of knowledge and technologies that will seed the future generation of speech neural prostheses.
“In order to enable a person to speak again, we need to transfer their intention to speak from the electrical signals in the brain into a speech synthesizer,” said Ramón García Cortadella, one of the PhD students participating on the project, in the FETFX video interview.
The researchers are working on creating flexible arrays of sensors based on graphene. Thanks to flexibility of graphene, such an array of transistors could be implanted on the human brain surface and achieve flexible contact of broad cortical areas for stimulation and neural activity decoding with unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution. The development of such novel neuroprosthetic devices will permit significant advances to the basic understanding of the dynamics and neural information processing in cortical speech networks and the development of speech rehabilitation solutions using innovative brain-computer interfaces.
Such innovative possibilities to influence the human brain raise also questions about ethical aspects of the use of neural technologies, e.g. in the terms of human (de)subjectivation.
Dr. Blaise Yvert and Dr. Eric Fourneret, both from the on-the-project participating University of Grenoble-Alpes, address the issue in a scientific article dedicated to the digital normativity topic:
Subjectivation is a construction process leading someone to become and be aware of being a subject, i.e., being free and responsible for one's actions and at the foundation of one's representations and judgments. This capacity is progressively acquired throughout life experience, including education, professional life, and more. Given that AI now constitutes an important part of human environment, could this technology weaken, or on the contrary, help to boost the capacity of human individuals to become subjects of their individual and collective lives?
This question is crucial for further research, the researchers continue:
AI has clearly become a unique opportunity for accompanying the evolution of human well-being but engenders a new major ethical challenge for humans: to preserve our capability to remain subjects and not only agents. Far from either completely embracing or completely rejecting AI technologies, it has become essential that an ethical reflection accompany the current developments of intelligent algorithms beyond the sole question of their social acceptability. Such thoughtful reflection cannot be conducted independently from the scientific actors of AI technology, but needs to accompany them in defining the values and aims of their research.