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The raging bull locked its legs mid-charge. Digging its hooves into the ground, the beast came to a halt just before it would have gored the man. Not a matador, the man in the bullring standing eye-to-eye with the panting toro was the Spanish neuroscientist José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado, in a death-defying public demonstration in 1963 of how violent behavior could be squelched by a radio-controlled brain implant. Delgado had pressed a switch on a hand-held radio transmitter to energize electrodes implanted in the bull’s brain. Remote-controlled brain implants, Delgado argued, could suppress deviant behavior to achieve a “psychocivilized society.”

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of manipulating the human mind with brain implants and radio beams ignited public fears that curtailed this line of research for decades. But now there is a resurgence using even more advanced technology. Laser beams, ultrasound, electromagnetic pulses, mild alternating and direct current stimulation and other methods now allow access to, and manipulation of, electrical activity in the brain with far more sophistication than the needlelike electrodes Delgado stabbed into brains.

Billionaires Elon Musk of Tesla and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook are leading the charge, pouring millions of dollars into developing brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. Musk says he wants to provide a “superintelligence layer” in the human brain to help protect us from artificial intelligence, and Zuckerberg reportedly wants users to upload their thoughts and emotions over the internet without the bother of typing. But fact and fiction are easily blurred in these deliberations. How does this technology actually work, and what is it capable of?

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