Have you heard of the man credited to be the “father of the cyborg?” I’m talking about neurologist Phil Kennedy, who created the technology that lets paralyzed people move a computer cursor using nothing but their own brainwaves. Because of this, Kennedy is a strong force in the world of brain-computer interfaces.
It’s only fitting, I suppose, that the father of the cyborg took measures to become one himself. In a highly controversial move, Kennedy decided to implant electrodes into his own brain for a self-experiment.
Why, you might ask? His company, Neural Signals, was in the middle of developing software that translates brainwaves into spoken words. The project came to a screeching halt when Kennedy wasn’t able to receive FDA approval for future experiments with the technology. His patient pool also presented issues because they were often unable to communicate – bringing about difficulties in confirming what they were thinking when neurons fired. He then had to seek out ALS patients who could still speak, but eventually gave up.
“This whole research effort of 29 years so far was going to die if I didn’t do something,” Kennedy reported to MIT Technology Review. “I didn’t want it to die on the vine. That is why I took the risk.” After years of deliberation with himself, Kennedy forked over $25,000 for surgery to implant the electrodes in his own brain. Since doctors in the U.S. wouldn’t and/or couldn’t perform the surgery, he shipped off to Belize for the 12-hour operation.
The surgery certainly had its complications – Kennedy couldn’t speak for a while following the first implant surgery. But once he had recovered, Kennedy set to work on resuming his experiment. He recorded brain signals during both speaking and imagining speaking, focusing on simple words. He ultimately found out that the combinations of 65 neurons that fire when you speak also fire when you simply think about speaking. This was a huge breakthrough – this relationship is integral to developing a speech encoder.
Kennedy was planning on living with the brain implants for years to collect the necessary data and improve control, but the incision in his skull didn’t heal completely. As a result, he had to undergo yet another expensive surgery ($94,000) at a Georgia Hospital to remove the implants. Kennedy believes the complication arose because he designed the electrodes to be extra large and implant them at an unusual angle to make them easier to work with.
Just because the implants are out doesn’t mean the experiment is over, however. Kennedy got about a month’s worth of quality data and will be using it to refine his brain-computer interface even further. Hopefully he can find some patients this time.