When I was a kid back in the 1960s, I mentioned to some other kids on the school bus that I had read a science-speculation article about being able to integrate computers with the human brain. I thought it was a pretty cool idea, but they said, “You want to turn people into machines!”
I learned to keep quiet about the idea. But still, it’s happening.
Once upon a time, computers were ‘big iron’ machines hidden away in government and corporate labyrinths. Then they emerged from their caverns and took residence upon our desks. Then they became portable laptops able to accompany us out of the office to home and on vacation. Then computers became tablets and smart phones, carried everywhere all the time in our pockets. Now they’ve climbed up to eye-level in the form of ‘Google Glasses,’ which will provide an augmented reality experience for the user.
You see where the computers are heading: getting closer and closer to our brains, until they jump inside.
Does this mean thought control? I doubt a brain-computer interface would be able to read thoughts. Human thoughts involve complex choreographies of billions of neurons firing at once. You would need one sensor for every neuron just to collect the data, never mind interpeting it.
However, it would be much easier to create an interface to enable the user to consciously input commands into the computer at a speed comparable to or in excess of speech. That in itself would require interfacing with only a few thousand neurons.
Far more neurons would have to be interfaced to provide full audio and video streaming going from computer to brain. Rapidly implanting a multitude of microscopic electrodes is beyond human surgical skill, but we can well imagine that robosurgeons might be able to implant millions through the tiniest of incisions within just minutes.
If the Terminator and Robocop movies offer any guideposts for the future, the patient then boots the system and finds a Windows/Mac/Linux-type GUI overlaying the normal field of vision. Willpower alone moves the mouse over the dropdown menu items. Need to know the time, figure how much to tip, or send a sub-vocalized message to Significant Other while your boss thinks you’re listening attentively? There’s an app for that.
Full immersion virtual reality would empower you to enter virtual worlds at will. With microelectrodes stimulating the proper neural pathways, everything you see and hear and feel could be fully immersed – no need to build a holodeck, because it’s already in your head. Online gaming and social media will be redefined out of all recognition.
Additionally, the computer inside you will take advantage of its placement to do a few things that smartphone apps can’t, like continually monitor body status, reporting on everything from heart rate to blood sugar. It can even fix a few things. Break your leg skiing? Turn down the pain. Trouble sleeping? Be knocked unconscious or kept wide awake. Neighbors too loud? Take your ears off line.
So were the kids on the bus right, and are we to become more machine-like? Well, that was a bad thing when robots were clunky and graceless. But generations of Moore’s Law later, ‘machine-like’ means transcending biological limits, becoming less clunky and more graceful. Might that be a good thing?
But with brain implants in place, will Big Brother be able to monitor every word and action? Well, it can do so now with present-day surveillance equipment. Surveillance is more about politics than technology. Contrawise, once individual human consciousness expands (say) a thousand-fold, can central authority even hope to keep up?
Ultimately, let us ponder that brain-computer interfaces are perhaps the only hope for humanity in the shadow of the machine. Consider, for example, how Captain Picard was always asking Commander Data for calculations, like how long it would take to reach the Neutral Zone at Warp Nine. That meekly-tendered request was always a tacit admission that androids are infinitely smarter than humans, and in his response Data always endeavored not to sound too smug.
In a more plausible future, however, Picard’s implants would inform him instantly and perhaps it would be Data who, with a non-upgradable operating system decades out of date, would end up ‘feeling’ useless and maybe just a little intimidated by what has become of human potential.
At any rate, to give another example, this one from real life: the other day I was standing in line at the gas station counter and with mounting frustration I was searching in my wallet for my discount card.
My turn came and I mumbled to the clerk, “I can’t find the card.”
She quietly replied, “It’s in your hand.”
I had taken it out a moment before, gotten distracted while waiting, and forgotten I was holding it in my other hand.
So for me, a brain-computer interface that can enhance human intelligence, perception, and memory is nothing to fear. On the contrary, it can’t happen soon enough.