Having created the first mind-controlled Bionic prosthetic leg, the head of Icelandic firm Össur discusses the promise — and challenges — of brain research.
One of the most exciting frontiers of exploration in science isn’t some faraway galaxy — it’s in our heads. The global race to unlock the mysteries of how the brain functions holds both great promise and potential peril, sparking debates over how far artificial intelligence and cyborg technologies can — and should — could take humanity.
Much of the discussion is based on hypotheticals, given how much there still is to learn about the brain. But the pace of breakthroughs is poised to accelerate, with research initiatives being launched in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.
One recent breakthrough comes from Iceland, where Össur has created the world’s first “mind-controlled Bionic prosthetic legs” — a prosthetics that detect electrical impulses from the brain. Jon Sigurdsson, president & CEO of Össur, says his hope is for prosthetics to replace the full functionality of the lost limb by responding to both brain signals and the external environment.
As a pioneer in commercializing brain research, Sigurdsson sees a certain responsibility to ensure ethical considerations are “at the forefront” of any innovations. “In neurologic applications — beyond mitigating risk of physical damage to the brain — companies need to demonstrate they would help preserve and not exploit patients’ mental and emotional well-being and their whole `thought-life,’ such as their memories and dreams, as well,” he says.
In the interview, Sigurdsson discusses his hopes for brain research, the challenges of commercializing innovations, as well as the potential ramifications — good and bad — of artificial intelligence.
Beyond Bionic limbs, what do you see as the most exciting potential breakthrough that could come out of brain research?
Relatively recent developments in neurogenesis and neuroplasticity suggest that human brains may grow new neurons during their lifetime, and that existing neuronal pathways may be reorganized to influence specific bodily functions. This is a very different perspective than in the past, when researchers proposed that neural pathways might “die off” from lack of use.
I’m intrigued in how these concepts might apply after a person has a debilitating injury or amputation — how might neuronal pathways be channeled or redirected to enhance a person’s mobility?
You’ve described your own research into artificial intelligence as a “very humbling experience,” given how far we are from replicating how the mind and body function. What do you see as the greatest obstacles to achieving true AI?
Right now, our bionic limbs “learn” in real-time — they gather data and adjust according to a wearer’s pace, speed, gait and the texture of the terrain they are covering.
AI has been described as having three levels or categories. Algorithm-based is the first level, or Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI). While ANI is a tremendous technological achievement, it still pales in comparison to the human brain. This is what’s humbling — understanding how extraordinarily complex our brain is, how we utilize its capacity and capability for routine activities and mundane thoughts, to say nothing of when we apply our brains to innovative challenges, such as exploring our innate creativity or engaging in problem-solving.
I believe the second next level of AI, or Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), is what most AI development is pursuing today and what I consider to be closer to everyday human thought.
What are the biggest hurdles to bringing neuroscience-related products to the market?
Because of the brain’s complexity, absolute value to the human existence, and its relative fragility — it’s difficult to recover from brain injury – it’s understandable that regulatory agencies are taking a conservative approach to commercializing neuroscience-related products.
We need to clearly understand how technological intervention might affect brain functionality, both initially and over longer terms. We must be confident that potential adverse events — whether from bioengineering or device applications, or biochemical ones from pharmaceuticals — can be mitigated if not avoided outright.
I would expect that, as research continues progressing, we’ll be better equipped to understand and predict the effects of neuro-related products, and this should help accelerate commercialization.
Do you share the concern of Stephen Hawking and others about the potential threat of AI to humanity, and are there any policies or other steps that should be taken to ensure we maintain control over such technologies?
The highest form of AI – Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI) – involves the possibility of technology developing superior capabilities to human thinking and introduces ideas of whether technology might ever become dangerous to humans.
Despite the overall acceleration of technological advancement, I believe we are quite a ways from developing true ASI capabilities, and any projected problems of ASI seem unlikely during our lifetimes. However, precautionary measures are warranted, in the event ASI-type functions became reality, to prevent any negative impact on future generations. We need to consider how and when we rely on AI for critical decision-making.
On the whole, though, I’m not convinced ASI will actually happen as predicted. I return to my original hypothesis: the human body, including its infinitely beautiful and complex brain, remains the ideal standard against which all artificial technologies will be measured.
(Top GIF: Video courtesy of Össur.)
All views expressed are those of the author.