Why you should care
Because downloading information directly into our brains is the next step.
Before meeting Adam Pantanowitz in a ritzy alcove of Johannesburg, my brain is buzzing — and for good reason. At 33, the Wits University lecturer has designed an interface that connects the human brain to the internet. I’m thinking: Why would you do that, unless you’re an evil genius in a sci-fi movie? Only Pantanowitz’s intentions are sound and, dare I say, noble. By using his Brainternet — a device he first conceived of four years ago but just recently developed with two senior biomedical engineering students — he’s made it possible to convert brain waves into signals and stream them into cyberspace, a tech that offers practical, health-based applications.
Just as I’m getting my head around being able to upload brain activity to the web, using off-the-shelf material available to any hack, Pantanowitz explains that’s just the first step toward the next inevitability: bidirectional information flow. Which is engineerspeak for the ability to download data from the internet directly into our cerebral matter. We’re not there yet, says the young bioengineer, nor have we grappled with the ethics of dialing up someone’s brain. That’s why Pantanowitz wants to kick-start the conversation in preparation for this new frontier in human and technological evolution.
I’m still hung up on someone using a cellphone to hack into my brain, but he assures me the objective is benevolent.
Pantanowitz’s original plan had been to wear an electroencephalogram headset for two weeks and open source his thoughts, but he never found the time. So he assigned the task to Danielle Winter and Jemma-Faye Chait, two fourth-year students at Wits, supervising them as they hacked together a portable Emotiv EEG headset and mini Raspberry Pi computer, and equipping them with either 3G or LTE. Using that connection, they were able to stream their brain signals as data to an online server — the first people ever to do so, says Pantanowitz. “They figured out when a person was raising their right arm, or raising their left arm, and the screen would display not only the signals back to them but also the information about what activity they were doing,” he says. In the future, he predicts: “Just like cellphones or air conditioners can have an IP address, a person [could] be connected to the internet with biological signals.”
When Pantanowitz shared the initial concept with his then girlfriend, now wife, her parents thought the idea sounded “a little strange.” Or downright troubling when you consider the implications of capturing someone’s brain activity and streaming it online. I put the ethical question to Dr. Estelle Trengove, who heads the school of electrical engineering at Wits. At this stage, she says, Brainternet is a rough-hewn prototype, but if it becomes commercially viable, she sees immediate privacy concerns. “Your brain wave patterns would be transmitted to a doctor via the internet, and a lot of information transmitted on the internet can be hacked or data-mined,” says Trengove, who also pointed to a vague fear that hackers could disrupt a person’s neurological systems.
Pantanowitz would rather focus on the technology’s benefits. “It stems back quite a lot to my own trajectory in life,” he tells OZY. In his early teens, he was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that caused great discomfort throughout high school. He credits his parents, a vascular surgeon and an artist, for pushing him to develop a creative approach to his circumstances — and to medical technology. His first challenge was gaining entrance to one of the most competitive programs at Wits when he couldn’t match the experience of other applicants. Ian Jandrell, dean of the faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, remembers an hourlong meeting with Pantanowitz, who convinced him that he would be a “hand-in-glove” fit for the biomedical program (where he now lectures). “He went from that interaction to the top of the class and stayed there,” says Jandrell.
That probity fed a number of entrepreneurial adventures as well. Since graduating with his second engineering degree in 2008, Pantanowitz has founded or co-founded over half a dozen startups. Not all have succeeded (fail fast, fail often, he says, echoing the startup mantra), but they invariably possess a humanitarian component. In 2012, for instance, he co-founded Medinexus South Africa in partnership with the Australian branch. Using sophisticated software, they made radiology reports accessible to both patients and referring doctors. But the market wasn’t quite ready, Pantanowitz says. “I think we were a little early and we ended up closing the business after about one and a half years.” He has also dipped into democratizing access to the law with Lawbuntu, an online database, and saving cellular customers money with Tariffic, software that matches individuals to an optimal contract based on their precise needs.
For now, though, Pantanowitz’s biomedical engineering research has gained the most ground — the explosion of public interest in Brainternet catching him somewhat by surprise, he tells me. When I ask him to describe how the technology will develop, he demurs, choosing instead to emphasize its practical applications. If, say, a person suffering from epilepsy were connected to the Brainternet, it could potentially predict the next seizure. “If they get into a particularly bad space,” he continues, “they could alert their friends and family without their being able to physically.”
Then Pantanowitz offers this: At Wits, he’s working on new brain technology that’s still under wraps. I’m still hung up on someone using a cellphone to hack into my brain, but he assures me the objective is benevolent. So many people are struggling, he says: “I’d like to use some of the knowledge I’ve been so lucky to get to try help alleviate some of that struggle.”