Ethicists, scientists and our readers consider the ethics of brain technology

Gertrude the pig rooted around a straw-filled pen, oblivious to the cameras and onlookers — and the 1,024 electrodes eavesdropping on her brain signals. Each time the pig’s snout found a treat in a researcher’s hand, a musical jingle sounded, indicating activity in her snout-controlling nerve cells.

Those beeps were part of the big reveal on August 28 by Elon Musk’s company Neuralink. “In a lot of ways, it’s kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” said Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, of the new technology.

Neuroscientists have been recording nerve cell activity from animals for decades. But the ambitions of Musk and others to link humans with computers are shocking in their reach. Future-minded entrepreneurs and researchers aim to listen in on our brains and perhaps even reshape thinking. Imagine being able to beckon our Teslas with our minds, Jedi-style.

Some scientists called Gertrude’s introduction a slick publicity stunt, full of unachievable promises. But Musk has surprised people before. “You can’t argue with a guy who built his own electric car and sent it to orbit around Mars,” says Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.

Whether Neuralink will eventually merge brains and Teslas is beside the point. Musk isn’t the only dreamer chasing neurotechnology. Advances are coming quickly and span a variety of approaches, including external headsets that may be able to distinguish between hunger and boredom; implanted electrodes that translate intentions to speak into real words; and bracelets that use nerve impulses for typing without a keyboard.

Today, paralyzed people are already testing brain-computer interfaces, a technology that connects brains to the digital world (SN: 11/16/13, p. 22). With brain signals alone, users have been able to shop online, communicate and even use a prosthetic arm to sip from a cup (SN: 6/16/12, p. 5). The ability to hear neural chatter, understand it and perhaps even modify it could change and improve people’s lives in ways that go well beyond medical treatments. But these abilities also raise questions about who gets access to our brains and for what purposes.