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Your Brain on a Blockchain - Literally

  • A blockchain could be used for neural-control systems.
  • In the future, digitized brain could be stored on a blockchain.
Your Brain on a Blockchain - Literally 101
Source: iStock/francescoch

Digital technology is coming for the human brain. Over the past few years, more and more startups have emerged with the intention of wiring our brains to digital platforms, whether this be for the purposes of mind-controlling our (virtual) environment, monitoring our thoughts and moods, or for downloading brain-activity data.

As can be imagined, such exploits are inevitably going to throw up a raft of issues concerning data security, privacy, and also transparency, as customers look to the companies messing with their heads to ensure that their brain-data remains protected and treated in accordance with terms & conditions. Well, it's very likely that these companies, in turn, will be looking to blockchains to ensure that this indeed remains the case.

Some neurotechnology startups have already outlined plans to put brain-data on blockchains.

Big neural data

One of the companies to confirm that they'll be using blockchain tech is Neurogress. Registered in Geneva and formed in 2017, the firm is focused on building neural-control systems, enabling users to control robotic arms, drones, smart appliances, and AR/VR (Augmented reality / Virtual Reality) devices with their own thoughts.

Neurogress' control system is based around using machine learning to improve its brain-reading accuracy, something which requires retaining 90% of brain-data in order to train the artificial intelligence (AI) being used by the system. In other words, "big data of user neural activity" is demanded, with the company's whitepaper citing the Human Brain Project's need for "exabytes (1 exabyte = 1 billion of gigabytes) of memory" as an example of the kind of storage capacity necessary.

It's therefore unsurprising that Neurogress plans to use blockchain, which it believes "effectively addresses the problem of data storage security and privacy." By recording user data on a decentralised blockchain (its candidates include Ethereum, IOTA, and EOS blockchains), this data becomes "resistant to hacking attacks" and thereby more private.

At the same time, use of blockchain technology makes the Neurogress "system open and transparent to potential users of the Neurogress platform services." Because any abnormal activity would be easily traceable, the system will "ensure security and confidentiality of personal data."

Simulate your brain

Neurogress plans a possible total of USD 44 million in its upcoming sale of NRG tokens, which will be used within its internal marketplace for rewarding developers.

Its has big ambitions, but these are more than matched by the other startups operating in the neurotechnology space. Perhaps the most ambitious of them all is Nectome, a company based in California that's aiming to preserve human brains via an embalming process known among professionals as aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation.

Not only does Nectome aim to preserve human brains, but its website declares an aspiration to "digitize your preserved brain and use that information to recreate your mind."

Digitising an entire human brain obviously requires some medium in which to store it, and it's here that blockchain technology rears its head once again. On the one hand, there are the arguments cited above which claim that blockchains are the best available method for securing data securely and transparently. On the other, there's also Nectome's openness to the possibility of using a blockchain.

Co-founder Michael McCanna, an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) graduate, told Cryptonews.com:

"We don't wish to speculate about specifics surrounding not-yet-invented neurotechnologies. We would concede that there's a chance that blockchain technology, including smart contracts, may one day play a role in managing aspects of whatever neurotechnology services are offered in the future."

However, at the moment, it has no specific plans for incorporating blockchain tech, if only because the 'data-uploading' part of its operations is still at an extremely early stage.

A similar position is expressed by Paradromics, a Californian company building brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that help patients with connectivity disorders interact with the world around them. Its CEO, Matt Angle, told Cryptonews.com, "Once enabled to use computers more fluently, many of [our customers] will want to use the internet to do the same things that everyone else does, and a part of that will be new applications that are enabled by blockchain, but off the top of my head I do not know of any BMI-specific applications of blockchain."

It's safer, but is it completely safe?

It's largely because neurotechnology remains at a very experimental stage that only a select few startups have gone so far as confirming a role for blockchain tech. Aside from Neurogress and possibly Nectome, there's also Basis Neuro, a Cayman Islands-registered firm which wants to use blockchain for its neuro-control platform in order to "effectively systematize the data of [users'] brain activity on conditions of anonymity."

Still, the potential is there, just as it's there in the area of artificial intelligence, which overlaps to a degree with neurotechnology and which is finding a role for blockchains among a number of companies.

The question remains, however, as to just how safe personal brain data would remain on a blockchain. The decentralised and transparent nature of blockchains would certainly prevent data from being altered or stolen, but many of the general concerns regarding large-scale data collection still apply: that sensitive data might end up being sold to third parties for questionable marketing purposes, that users might still be indirectly identifiable (as they are with bitcoin) via pseudonymous identifiers or patterns of data.

That said, we're still a long way from putting our brains on blockchains, so you can probably put that tin-foil hat back in the cupboard for now…

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