As Elon Musk’s Neuralink grabbed Western world headlines last month for receiving approval to test its brain implants on humans, news of different brain-computer interface technology at a far more advanced stage of rollout was working its way through the Chinese media ecosystem: From the brink of suicide, a desperate, isolated man in his mid-thirties referred to as Wu Xiaotian (吳曉天) has been restored to his talkative, karaoke-loving self through a technique known as deep-brain stimulation.
The transformation is the handiwork of Shanghai Ruijin Hospital’s Brain-Computer Interface and Neuromodulation Center, whose functional neurosurgery team implanted devices into 29 sufferers of life-threatening depression in order to clinically trial this new approach to improving their quality of life. The devices they inserted stimulate up to 16 points in the patient’s brain, which empowers Wu to switch his “mood-setting” via an app on his phone, pepping himself up when he needs to energize and calming himself down when it is time to sleep.
If accurately reported, one year after his operation, the results for Wu appear revolutionary, and it is impossible to feel anything other than joy for a young man who suddenly finds himself mingling comfortably on crowded streets and joking away with taxi drivers, when, just over a year ago, he was barely able to leave his own bedroom. One hopes that the life stories of the other patients undergoing the trial would be similarly upbeat if ever told.
However, this should not distract from the impending perils of remote deep-brain stimulation in present-day China, where thoughts can be banned and the government has a deep, vested interest in modulating citizens’ state of mind. Indeed, while Wu is in charge of his own mood-settings, the other participants in Shanghai Ruijin’s new trial are not permitted to choose how they feel for themselves. Instead, a doctor is in control.
While this precaution may very well be for their own safety, and the lead neuroscientist with his finger on the mood button, Sun Bomin (孫伯民), does claim that a lengthy and robust ethics procedure has informed how the brain-computer interface is deployed, the repressive potential of mood interference technology will not have escaped the curiosity of the Chinese Communist Party, whose members sit among Shanghai Ruijin Hospital’s top management. To some degree, this kind of tech constitutes surveillance and censorship actually inside another person’s body and serves as a potential curtain-raiser for what one writer has described as an “emotional puppet show.”
Indeed, the next time visiting ambassadors, journalists or the United Nations are given the opportunity to interview selected “graduates” from internment camps in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) or receive proof of life for human rights defenders, would it not be wonderful to present such people in a bouncy, zestful mood-state? Might that not undermine the coherence of any statement they provide, a horrifying “version 2.0” of Beijing’s dancing Uyghur propaganda? What is more, if one can identify brain patterns associated with depression and disrupt them, should it not be possible to interfere with other inconvenient emotional reactions and thereby influence the decision-making of people who experience them, too?
Another concerning possible application is torture and the advent of a new kind of induced suiciding. Wu describes several of the 16 points that his device can stimulate — far more, according to Chinese media, than seem to be targeted by overseas research — as very uncomfortable, and the much-discussed Waluigi Effect promises that technology deployed to reduce suicidal tendencies could be purposed for the exact opposite as well. What better way to remove troublemakers than to drive them to do the dirty work for themselves? Less dramatically, unpleasant or erratic reactions, like the rage and table-pounding that can also be instigated in Wu by his device, may serve to isolate influential individuals, a kind of social suicide.
These scenarios are highly speculative and the limitations of Shanghai Ruijin’s deep-brain approach are not known. Certainly, it is difficult to scale at present, even if the procedure is only minimally invasive, and China already has ways of inserting sensors in the brain without piercing the skull. Manipulating the nervous system of a cockroach is difficult to reliably achieve, so truly controlling or overriding the brain patterns of a human is not a simple matter. Moreover, there is no reason to suspect doctors trialing depression treatments as motivated by anything other than a humane desire to help people in need.
On the other hand, what can be firmly established is China’s history of research in mind control and cognitive warfare. In 2019, for example, an article by Feng Zhengzhi (馮正直) and Xu Ke (許珂) foresaw brain-computer interfaces as opportunities to hack, influence or control users’ brains. Referencing research on cognitive control from the West, which it considers to be far more advanced, the article appeared in the Journal of the Third Military Medical University, a People’s Liberation Army institution.
The country also has an ongoing habit of placing people who express challenging opinions in mental health facilities and foisting mind-altering medical treatment upon them. These activities are the culmination of extremely wide definitions of what constitutes mental illness and state-condoned practices that, despite legal reform in 2013, still easily enable compulsory detention of people who have been identified as mentally ill. Users of drugs are another group who can be held against their will in conditions that violate human rights norms. Some received brain implants in an attempt to resolve their addictions years ago. These examples are significant, because China compares dissenters and religious minorities with the sick, the addicted and the mentally ill, thus putting them at risk of related “treatments.”
Unsettlingly, among its many techniques for dissolving people psychologically, from compelling Muslims to consume pork to making Buddhist nuns dance for its pleasure, the Communist Party seems to delight in forcing people to betray or contradict their own most deeply held principles, too. A brain-computer interface stands to become a precise tool for these twisted pleasures. Furthermore, to arrive at the human world, such devices have doubtless worked their way through countless unfortunate non-human primates, some of whom are being illegally abducted from the wild.
Then there is the backdrop: Evidence that organs are being harvested from Uyghur and Falun Gong detainees, following a long-standing policy of removing them from prisoners, is considered credible by United Nations experts. A government willing to sanction such evils clearly has no ethical limit to its behavior, and it is terrifying to consider what else might be concealed in its censorship cocoon. At the very least, we can be assured that, if the brain-computer interface is at such an advanced stage for civilians like Wu, the military and police will have access to devices of greater sophistication.
Thus, as other countries ponder how to approach future scientific cooperation with China, including the impending debate on renewal of the China-U.S. Science and Technology Agreement, it is vital to consider how uplifting stories of human empowerment in the Middle Kingdom can hide deep darknesses both behind and beyond them.