‘I AM HUMAN’: Are Brain Implants the Next Evolutionary Leap?

By Marty Graham, Contributor

Mainstream culture has few concerns about implanting certain devices in our bodies. According to an AARP white paper, about 370,000 people receive cardiac devices like pacemakers each year. Approximately 1 million people have implanted knees and hips. But when the topic turns to brain implants, opinions can get murky. People generally agree that their unique identities depend on their brains—so what happens when scientists tamper with our most complex organ?

I AM HUMAN, a documentary by digital storyteller Taryn Southern and filmmaker Elena Gaby, explores this very question. Recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, the visually stunning movie explores the emerging trend of devices implanted in human brains.

I AM HUMAN introduces us to patients Anne, who is losing herself to Parkinson’s disease; Bill, who was paralyzed from the neck down after a cycling accident; and Stephen, who has lost his vision. When Anne, Bill and Stephen have technology implanted in their brains, what happens to the line between human and machine?

It introduces us to patients Anne, who is losing herself to Parkinson’s disease; Bill, who was paralyzed from the neck down after a cycling accident; and Stephen, who has lost his vision. As the film traces their medical journeys, it poses a challenging question to viewers: When patients have technology implanted in their brains, what happens to the line between human and machine?

While I AM HUMAN takes a deep-dive into the complex intersection of medicine and technology, it handles its subjects’ lives and relationships with great care. As it unpacks the work of doctors, bioengineers, and researchers who install and refine the implanted devices, the quiet determination, candor, and courage of Anne, Bill, and Stephen remain front and center.

“We set out to make a movie about technology and we ended up making a movie about these three people, though it took a while to realize it,” Southern says. “It was a very challenging film to figure out [how] to tackle these really large philosophical questions, but also [explore] what the technology looks like through the lens of these three people.”

Southern embraces new technology in her life, work, and art, so it’s natural that her innate curiosity would take her to this edge of evolution: incorporating technology into human brains.

“It’s difficult, uncomfortable territory,” she says. “It was challenging to get it right in the movie.”

Restored Not Enhanced

Southern and Gaby chose patients whose brain interfaces were meant to restore, rather than exaggerate their abilities. In Toronto, doctors implanted electrodes into Anne’s brain while she was awake, which restored functions she lost to Parkinson’s tremors. In Cleveland, Bill received a brain implant to help him move his paralyzed arm, and after hours of practice and programming by bioengineers, his wish to feed himself again was realized. Stephen had a tiny camera implanted in his eye—a squirm-inducing surgery—that sends images directly to his brain, beginning to restore his sight. The film avoids the ethical quagmire of brain interfaces that heighten people’s abilities or grant them new ones—an intentional decision.

“It is the elephant in the room, that the same exact technology could be used to improve people, to have infrared vision from their bionic eye or more energy or memory—more ambition.”—Taryn Southern, digital storyteller and ‘tech optimist’

“Enhancement seems inappropriate in the context of these courageous people’s journeys,” Southern says. But, as researchers develop brain interfaces that don’t require surgery – some of these look like swim caps pocked with electrodes – using the technology to augment our senses will become a more appealing idea. “It is the elephant in the room, that the same exact technology could be used to improve people, to have infrared vision from their bionic eye or more energy or memory—more ambition.”

Instead, I AM HUMAN focuses on the industry innovators who are developing experimental devices and treatments for medical use. It includes the ethicists who are raising questions about the control, programming, and regulation of these devices, which could be easily exploited.

“All the scientists, the entrepreneurs, the ethicists were coming to the table from a place of genuine concern, excitement, and thoughtfulness,” Southern continues.

Tech-Optimist Storyteller

Southern, who describes herself as a “tech optimist,” has long been on new technology’s front lines, focusing on how technology advances and enhances connections between people. She was one of YouTube’s earliest creators, writing and creating music and videos that have amassed about 500 million hits. In 2018, she made history by releasing an album where the music behind her vocals was entirely composed by artificial intelligence (AI).

What remains a through-line in Southern’s extensive body of work is the empathetic storytelling that transcends the technologies in use. I AM HUMAN is no exception: From the engineers who become teary when their mechanical device allows Bill to feed himself to exploring entrepreneur Bryan Johnson’s role as a brain tech evangelist, the documentary shows the humanity behind innovation.

A Nuanced View of Technology

While the evolutionary blurring of humans and machines excites Southern, this project made her more deeply consider its implications.

“I have a much more nuanced view of what this technology can mean,” she says. “My own internal journey was similar to the film, from enthusiasm, enthusiasm, enthusiasm to wait a minute, we have to think about this.”

“I have a much more nuanced view of what this technology can mean. My own internal journey was similar to the film, from enthusiasm, enthusiasm, enthusiasm to wait a minute, we have to think about this.”—Taryn Southern, also a
singer-songwriter, director, writer and artist

Scientists, doctors, and biotech engineers are very much part of the stories told in I AM HUMAN; they raise ethical quandaries, revealing enthusiasm that’s intelligent but guarded.

“I was surprised to see the scientists could maintain a very conservative view of science—because that’s their job—but also be able to hold this grand view of where this could go,” she says. “There were more visionary scientists in the field than I expected.”

Southern believes that the conversation about altering our brains to both restore and enhance our abilities is an “enormous evolutionary leap forward.”

“I can’t think of another moment in history that we can compare this to other than the transition from homo erectus to homo sapiens,” she says.

Throughout filming, Southern continued to think about the key question posed by her work: Does our identity change when devices augment our bodies?

Her conclusion: “At its core, I do not believe we are fixed in our identity; I find the idea of a fixed identity limiting. We were all born into this world wanting to do more and do better and live more and feel more.”

Photo credit: Joel Froome