Every so often, when some new scientific paper is published or new experiment revealed, the press pronounces the creation of the first bionic man—part human, part machine. Science fiction, they say, has become scientific reality; the age of cyborgs is finally here.
Many of these stories are gross exaggerations. But something more is also afoot: There is legitimate scientific interest in the possibility of connecting brains and computers—from producing robotic limbs controlled directly by brain activity to altering memory and mood with implanted electrodes to the far-out prospect of becoming immortal by “uploading” our minds into machines. This area of inquiry has seen remarkable advances in recent years, many of them aimed at helping the severely disabled to replace lost functions. Yet public understanding of this research is shaped by sensationalistic and misleading coverage in the press; it is colored by decades of fantastical science fiction portrayals; and it is distorted by the utopian hopes of a small but vocal band of enthusiasts who desire to eliminate the boundaries between brains and machines as part of a larger “transhumanist” project. It is also an area of inquiry with a scientific past that reaches further back in history than we usually remember. To see the future of neuroelectronics, it makes sense to reconsider how the modern scientific understanding of the mind emerged.
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