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Mind and machine—author Malcolm Gay’s book partially inspired by St. Louis neurosurgeon

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

Many people could construe the tagline of Malcolm Gay’s recent book, “The Brain Electric: The Dramatic High-Tech Race to Merge Minds and Machines,” as a vision of dystopian cyborgs lording over the general public. In reality, the vision and the future of brain-machine interface is not quite so dramatic—or horrific.

“In certain respects, we’re already there,” Gay told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday. “There are at this point more than 300,000 people walking around with cochlear implants to help them hear. Those are using electrodes to stimulate the brain so you can hear digitally.”

Another example of the melding of mind and machine is the invention of a prosthetic retina to help blind patients see.  Are we just around the corner from cyborgs that are capable of abstract thought? Gay said we’re still far from that sort of future.

Credit Malcolm Gay

Gay, a former critic-at-large for the Riverfront Times and current arts reporter for the Boston Globe, said the more realistic view of the movement promises to help the severely disabled function in society without impairment.

“Right now, we’re talking about medical benefit in the medical market for people who have severe disabilities,” Gay said. “Eric is a terrific example of the interest that people have in pushing this beyond medical applications and augmenting human ability—allowing people to think faster, see better, hear better, memorize things more clearly.”

The Eric that Gay mentions is St. Louis neurosurgeon Eric Leuthardt who, among others, is making waves in the field of emerging technologies used to aid the brain. In fact, Gay wrote the book because of a magazine piece he wrote while working in St. Louis that featured Leuthardt.

Related: Computers In The Brain? Not So Science Fiction, Says St. Louis Neuroscientist

“Eric was an incredibly open host to showing me his world. He took me into the ER, very early, and what I saw there was an extraordinary situation where he was removing a tumor. Leuthardt is an epileptologist, so normally he resects brains to cure epilepsy, but in this case it was a tumor. In the middle of the surgery, he woke the patient up, and the surgical attendant asked the patient about the Cardinals and his work. Meanwhile, Eric is cutting away at his brain. What he was doing was monitoring how close he got to the verbal centers of the brain.”

That he interacted with the brain in such a tangible way is what caught Gay’s eye—and makes it a big part of his book. That’s not to say there aren’t more science-fiction-like movements he delves into.

Gay follows research being done by organizations like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and President Obama’s brain initiative. He says it is a growing field. Last year, Radiolab, did a story on a DARPA project that stimulates snipers brains with electricity so they can perform better under pressure. Advanced research of this kind in the name of improving soldiers is not uncommon, said Gay.

"One thing that brain-machine interfaces really do point to is that our intelligence and our ability to be human has really been bound to technology. It is part and parcel of the human experience in that it enhances our abilities."

“The Department of Defense has been interested in brain-machine interface for a very long time,” said Gay. “Earlier, it was to enhance warfare and warrior performance. In the middle of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and partially you can put this at the feet of Jeffrey Ling, who oversees DARPA, saw a lot of vets coming back without limbs. Ling felt that the United States was duty-bound to making soldiers whole. One of the reasons why they put so much energy into this is to give vets a real chance.”

Additionally, researchers are discovering how to connect different animals’ brains so they can exchange thoughts virtually. While that may sound scary, Gay believes that’s just gets at the center of why human beings research brain-machine interfaces in the first place.

“Obviously, our world is increasingly being mediated by technology and things like social media and various devices," Gay said. "One thing that brain-machine interfaces really do point to is that our intelligence and our ability to be human has really been bound to technology. It is part and parcel of the human experience in that it enhances our abilities. That’s something we’ve always tried to do.”

  Related Event

What: Author Event at Left Bank Books: Malcolm Gay’s Brain Electric
When: Thursday, Nov. 19 at 7:00 p.m.
Where: Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave.
More information.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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