Neuroscience technology developments help link computers to human brain

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Recent developments in neuroscience technology will help link computers and the human brain, according to a panel hosted by The Austin Forum on Science, Technology & Society on Tuesday.

“If you think about an infant with its eyes open for three seconds, that’s where we are at in neuroscience,” said Russell Poldrack, UT psychology and neuroscience professor and panelist.

One topic of research the panelists focused on as particularly promising was software that interacts with the brain. Panelist William Hurley, software developer and businessman, said neuroscience software is only now receiving the attention it deserves. Hurley works as the co-founder of the Austin software company Chaotic Moon, which drew attention to itself by developing a mind-controlled skateboard.

“A lot of the problems [in neuroscience] are in the software space,” Hurley said. “For example, if you take an EEG [electroencephalograph], and you read signals out of the brain, the hardware science for how to do that is pretty well-defined. But the results you get, which are defined by the software algorithms, are pretty sketchy at best.”

The other member of the panel was business consultant Kevin Leahy. The speakers discussed the past, present and future of neuroscience, which Poldrack described as a field still in its infancy. The panelists discussed promising neuroscience software that is viable with today’s technology, such as programs that could train people’s brains, improve their memories and decision-making or even help them relax.

“Brain software can’t tell you a lot about the brain [now], but it can help you meditate or achieve meditative states,” Poldrack said.

The panelists also discussed possible applications of neurological technology in the near and distant future. Hurley and Poldrack each said they are interested in the possibility of software that helps treat mental illness, such as programs that interact with someone having a panic attack or technology that could be used to treat the brain for conditions like epilepsy without surgery. Leahy, on the other hand, spoke about software that could help people deal with their personal biases.

Though the panelists were largely optimistic about these new technologies, they did recognize the possible dangers that they pose.

“The ethical implications of the advancement of this technology should be at the forefront of the everybody’s mind,” Hurley said. “It is possible that at some point we will find out how to program your brain. And when that happens, [can] I program brains without their knowing?”