Getting inside heads is getting to be Big Business

Stories are hitting the media every day now on the subject of science monitoring brain activity in order to influence human thought and action. Two stories in particular today feature ways in which popular awareness of brain science is becoming more pervasive, from a short TEDTalk in Vancouver in March that demonstrated how one person’s brain can move another person’s arm; to this Reuters report on research by SharpBrains into an explosion in the number of neurotechnology patents.

From brain scans in pursuit of consumer research data, and means of alleviating depression or for enhancing vision; through to non-medical applications in the worlds of video gaming and home entertainment: we are getting far more interested in the relationship between what’s happening inside our heads and how that can influence, or be influenced by, what’s going on in the external world. It appears almost as if there’s a neuro-equivalent of Moore’s Law at work, except that the number of US patents for products characterised as “neurotechnological” is doubling every four years, rather than every two. From about 400 patents annually a decade ago, the number had increased to 800 by 2010 and then doubled again by last year to 1,600. What seems to be driving a sense that a tsunami is developing is more than just bigger numbers, but also the quality of the patents in terms of the number of other patents that reference them.

As ever in the history of human innovation, a key challenge will lie in distinguishing between patents that empower people to live better lives, as against those that essentially facilitate the control of people by other people.

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