Computer chips could be planted in the brain: Scientist portrays Orwellian vision

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THE MEDICAL implant of the future will not be the artificial hip joint or soft implants for uplifting breasts, but something rather more cerebral - a computer chip for the brain.

A leading Cambridge scientist yesterday portrayed an Orwellian dream - or nightmare - of being able to insert silicon chips to augment the memory and intellectual prowess of the cranially impaired.

Colin Humphreys, Professor of Materials Science at Cambridge University, said it was realistic to envisage a day when surgeons would be able to attach tiny artificial memory circuits etched on to microscopic silicon chips to the living circuits of the brain.

'If we can understand the interface - the boundary - between silicon chips and brain cells, then there is a prospect of implanting silicon chips into the human brain,' he said at a medical conference yesterday at Hammersmith hospital in London.

'This could be a possible partial treatment for Alzheimer's disease, the degenerative brain disorder in the old. Or it may be a way in the future for man to extend his intelligence.'

He said the ultimate goal was to create a silicon implant 'for the brain to think it's just got another piece of brain there'. The advantage of computer chips was that information 'is never forgotten', he said. It could also be possible to design chips the brain could use to record new information, much like a computer disc. 'It could be very useful for storing telephone numbers.' Computers can do some things more reliably than humans, like playing chess, whereas the brain is better at recognising faces, he said. 'If we can combine the two we can get the best of both worlds.'

Professor Humphreys said the sub-microscopic technology already existed to etch the entire contents of Encyclopaedia Britannica in molecular- sized print on to the head of a pin. The same technology could be used to develop a chip for the brain.

But he acknowledged such work would raise important ethical problems. 'We have to have all these issues looked at carefully,' he said. The idea raises the prospect of people being able to control the minds of others.

Professor Humphreys said brain functions fell into two general categories, those which are carried out in certain well- defined regions of the brain and those that are less localised. The idea would be to use silicon chips initially to replace those functions that are localised and are in some way impaired, he said.

'These are really complex problems,' he said.

An enormous amount of research was needed to overcome them and funding for such speculative work would be difficult, Professor Humphreys admitted.