UK urged to lead brain-machine interface technology by Sheffield-backed Royal Society report

A Royal Society report, in which a Sheffield researcher is a key author, has urged the UK Government to take the lead on technology that merges brain, body and machine to stimulate innovation and allow the public to shaped the field, which could transform medicine and human interaction in the coming decades.

The report - iHuman: Blurring lines between mind and machine - launched on Monday 9th September, argues that the UK government should launch a national investigation into neural interface technologies – which allow the brain and the nervous system to be connected using a device - and their ethical implications.

Neural interfaces are devices implanted in the body, or worn externally, that can record or stimulate activity in the brain and nervous system.

The report highlights the role the UK could play as a world leader in these technologies. It is also the first piece of work to explore these ethical questions in depth and propose actions to ensure they deliver on their potential.

Examples include cochlear implants, which convert sound into electrical signals sent directly to patients’ brains, and prosthetic arms or legs that move based solely on human thought.

Experts predict this emerging technology could eventually be applied to conditions like dementia, paralysis, mental health issues, and obesity.

The report’s authors, including Dr Mahnaz Arvaneh, lecturer in Bioengineering based in the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering at Sheffield, outline how neural interfaces could transform medicine and human interaction in the coming decades.

mahnaz

Dr Arvaneh said: “We can analyse the brain signals and send the commands directly to a device. So, for example, if I want to turn off the light, I would think ‘I want to turn off the light’ the neural interfaces measure the brain activity, understand the intention and the signals can then be used to turn off the light.”

Authors in the report say that Government needs to act now to ensure the UK’s ethical and regulatory safeguards are flexible enough for future development.

The report recommends:

  • A national investigation of the ethical issues presented by neural interfaces, to address questions of what data should be collected, how it is kept safe, and the acceptability of enhancements.
  • Ministers work with industry and universities to create a UK Neural Interface Ecosystem which encourages innovation and collaboration in this field.
  • Government and the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority should trial new ways of encouraging innovation to prevent a monopoly by “Big Tech” firms. This could include a “sandbox” approach for new medical devices to demonstrate their safety and efficacy in a controlled environment.
  • Giving the public a clear voice in shaping how this technology is used and regulated for the public good and opting citizens out of having their neural data shared as a default.