The Bigger, Beautiful Meaning of Electrodes Implanted In Our Brains
AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez
The Bigger, Beautiful Meaning of Electrodes Implanted In Our Brains
AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez
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“He has not been able to speak since 2003, when he was paralyzed at age 20 by a serious stroke after a terrible car crash.” “He” is Pancho, who chose to not disclose his real name. The words in quotes come from Pam Belluck, of the New York Times.

Belluck explains that in “a scientific milestone,” scientists “have tapped into the speech areas of his [Pancho’s] brain – allowing him to produce comprehensible words and sentences simply by trying to say them.” This is all made possible by electrodes “implanted in his brain” that “transmit signals to a computer that displays them on the screen.”

Think about what this means. There are a variety of maladies that rob us of our ability to communicate. Along these lines, some readers may remember the 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former Elle editor suffered a stroke only to be fully paralyzed with the exception of his left eye. Bauby learned to communicate by blinking his eye at letters on the way to the spelling of words.

The film is inspiring, but also a reminder of the prison that life becomes for so many who lose speech. Now they potentially have a chance to live lives defined by much greater normalcy. In Pancho’s case, the algorithmic system deduced correctly the 9,000 words he was trying to say roughly half the time. With the sentences, the implants were even more accurate.

The crucial thing is that this is just the beginning. There’s no frontier to knowledge or progress, so imagine what happens as researchers expand on what’s remarkable.

There are lessons in this. For one, these implants will hopefully cause us to curb our enthusiasm about education. This isn’t to denigrate the act of attaining a college degree as much as it’s to say that the scientists working endlessly to give speech back to those who’ve lost it didn’t learn how to at medical school. These are different, thoroughly amazing thinkers. 

Looked at from a tax and government spending perspective, hopefully this latest brilliant advance gives both dominant ideologies pause. It should because no matter the Party in control of the proverbial federal purse, the size and scope of government continues to grow.

Please consider the above truth through the prism of technological advances that are giving speech to those who’ve lost it. No doubt the experimentation that led to the exciting present was non-stop, and also very costly. In which case we have to consider the unseen. Which experiments were not conducted, and which investments in exciting scientific advances were not made as a consequence of a federal government that continues to penalize work and savings on the way to trillions worth of spending every year.

Some will no doubt reply that federal spending is often directed toward scientific concepts, that’s no doubt true, but please ask yourself whom you’d direct your hard-earned wealth to if you wanted to achieve medical advance: Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, and Chuck Schumer, or prominent healthcare venture capitalists like Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund and Kleiner Perkins? The question answers itself.

Government taxing and spending logically delays progress. This isn’t a partisan statement as much as it’s a statement of the obvious. Progress is messy, expensive, and is defined by voluminous information-producing mistakes. Government consumption limits the production of information, thus raising a question of how much sooner the algorithmic brain implants would have reached us had the federal government been operating within its strict constitutional limits over the decades.

Which brings us to inequality. One gets the feeling that these implant advances will have myriad applications beyond returning speech to those who lost it. One guess is that the typical man on the street will yearn for the technology. Think about it, and think how many times we’ve all said something along the lines of “I know what I want to say, but just can’t get it down on paper.” The articulation of what’s in all of our brains has the potential to magnify human productivity in ways that will make today’s growth seem sclerotic by comparison to what’s ahead.

Looked at in an inequality sense, one guesses that the creators of the technology discussed here will grow rich for having created it, while the entrepreneurs who develop market applications will claim fortunes measured in the billions. Will this make you mad? Will wealth achieved by virtue of reducing mass unease from the lives of others cause those distressed by inequality to feel even worse?

The above question likely also answers itself, and that’s too bad. Far from a creator of misery, rising inequality is actually an incredibly bullish sign of life being made easier by individuals unwilling to allow the present to define the future. The unequal get that way by rushing an entirely different, and unimaginable future into the present. In other words, inequality is a feature of a free society.

To see why, consider Pancho yet again. As he explained it via these remarkable brain implants, “Not to be able to communicate with anyone, to have a normal conversation and express yourself in any way, it’s devastating, very hard to live with.” It must be devastating, while not being life’s only devastation. It explains why we need more people working feverishly to remove what’s awful from life, all the while growing very rich in the process.   

 

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors (www.appliedfinance.com). His new book is titled When Politicians Panicked: The New Coronavirus, Expert Opinion, and a Tragic Lapse of Reason. Other books by Tamny include They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers, The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  


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