Elon Musk’s recent announcement that his company Neuralink has successfully implanted a computer chip into a human brain has sparked excitement in medical circles and raised ethical concerns.

While neurotechnology offers potential benefits for individuals who have lost limb function, there are growing questions about the implications of thoughts controlling all our devices in the future.

Other companies, such as Australia-based Synchron and BlackRock’s Utah Array, have also implanted microchips in human brains, but none has garnered as much attention as Neuralink.

Earlier this month, Musk announced that the first human participant in their trial had received a brain microchip and was recovering successfully. Before this, Neuralink conducted studies involving monkeys and pigs.

The aim of the technology, known as Telepathy, is to assess the adaptability of quadriplegic patients to a wireless chip, about the size of a coin, implanted in their brain. This chip reads and decodes their neural signals through Bluetooth, allowing them to perform tasks like turning on lights and typing on a computer using only their thoughts.

The groundbreaking technology, once confined to the realm of science fiction, is now becoming a reality with the development of brain-computer interfaces.

Elon Musk has expressed that while the initial phase of the study focuses on assisting patients with spinal cord diseases, the ultimate goal is to enhance human intelligence, enabling individuals to keep up with artificial intelligence (AI).

There are many potential benefits to this medical breakthrough, which combines info-tech with biotech, says Anna Collard, senior vice-president: content strategy and evangelist at KnowBe4 Africa. “The most obvious benefits would be in the medical field, for those who are paralysed or have suffered from strokes.”

Brain-computer interfaces could also be used in the future to help those with motor degenerative diseases, as well as diseases of the mind, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and even psychiatric disorders.

In the field of defence, computer-brain interfaces offer another potential – yet scary – application. Equipping soldiers with these interfaces would give them a significant advantage, as they would be able to remotely control their weapons using their minds.

Additionally, this technology could help them suppress fear in battle and utilise AI to enhance their decision-making capabilities.

From a medical standpoint, there are significant risks associated with this technology, particularly when it involves sensitive areas of the body, such as the brain.

Reports on Neuralink’s studies involving monkeys have indicated occurrences of seizures, paralysis, and brain swelling. Experts have also pointed out that invasive objects inserted into the body often face rejection or may lose their functionality over time.

Apart from the medical risks, there are also significant ethical and cybercrime risks to brain-computer interfaces, asserts Collard.

“The most obvious warning bells relate to privacy and surveillance,” she says. “This new technology has the potential to collect and transmit sensitive neural data continuously, raising questions about who has access to this information and how it will be used.”

Other concerns raised by brain-computer interfaces are data breaches and the potential for exploitation by third parties. “This level of access to an individual’s thoughts could lead to unprecedented invasions of privacy, with the potential for manipulation and control,” comments Collard. “The prospect of constant monitoring and data collection raises concerns about the erosion of personal autonomy and the right to mental privacy.”

In addition, brain-computer interfaces would exponentially increase the potential for malicious exploitation . “There is a real risk that nefarious actors could manipulate individuals’ autonomy or access their thoughts and information by trying to hack into your brain,” states Collard.

Although the medical implications of brain-computer interfaces are exciting, especially for those who suffer from diseases and disabilities, the ethical implications of implanting a microchip in the human brain cannot be ignored. “There is a critical need for robust regulation and safeguards to protect individuals from potential abuses of this technology,” concludes Collard.