When I was a medical student, the skull was treated like a black box. Although it contained, arguably, the most important organ in our bodies (that we all wanted to fully understand), the bone protecting our brains is thick and resistant to many types of intrusions. Measuring brain activity and even more so, modifying the electrical signals between the brain’s nerve cells, was very difficult. EEGs definitely already existed and did provide important information about patients with diseases like epilepsy. But being able to read the messages of the brain and translate them into words or images, was still in the realm of fantasy.
These days, we are able to study the brain’s functions far better than we could with EEGs alone. CTs and MRIs give us a highly detailed look at the anatomy of the brain. Using a device called a functional MRI, one can literally see different parts of the brain light up when someone thinks of various items or does certain activities. In this way, we can understand how the brain processes certain sensory inputs and how the brain manages certain tasks. We are to an extent able to see how we think. This is somewhat of a magical mirror allowing us to look at our own thoughts.
More recently, a number of start-ups have announced their brain related wares, including a product that allows a user to remote control a complicated device solely via their brain, and another product that allows for brain to brain direct signaling. I would not be surprised if in 10 to 15 years from now, we will already be using an interface-less interface. No more mice, no more keyboards, no more screens. Via small devices that might be implanted or just worn, we will be able to have a complete interactive experience via direct contact between technology and our brains.
A number of years ago, on an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, the viewing public was introduced to a cyborg life form called “The Borg”. These beings were visibly part machine and they had a communal mind, such that individuality lost its meaning. Understandably, this image was very unsettling to a lot of people. In looking at the Borg, people literally saw the rise of the machines and the loss of humanity’s physicality and spirituality.
Personally, I was not bothered by the Borg imagery. I suspect that in practice, the blending of technology and human tissue will be extremely subtle. The actual devices that will, in the future, manage the hardware part of our brain connections, will likely be invisible, or nearly so. These hardware portals between our human tissue and fiberoptic connections to the Internet, will either be very small and worn somewhere on the body(perhaps under one’s hair), or will be implanted under the skin.
Remember that in 10 years from now, computers will be 1000 times more capable than they are now, and in 20 years from now, they will be a million times more capable. So one can imagine a large room full of today’s highest quality computing hardware becoming the size of the tip of our fingers in a single generation. As sensors also become smaller and more sensitive, they too will “vanish” on our bodies. Our BCN (Body Centric Network) will envelop us and give us all abilities that we never dreamed of.
For example, there is already technology that can interpret visual images and translate them into neurological signals, such that a person who was blind, can see a limited-quality image. Very advanced technologies already exist for people with specific types of hearing loss. Once we are all linked up to our personal BCNs, we might actually use a sensor rather than our own eyes to “sense” our environment and feed the information to the visual processing areas of our brains.
Why might someone want to do this? Perhaps the person with the BCN will need to see objects that are beyond the range of natural human vision. So a sensor with telescopic capabilities could provide information directly to our brains and eliminate the need for specialized scopes or glasses. Let us imagine another scenario, where a person needs to evaluate a region for a radiation leak. In such a case, it might be useful to be able to see x-rays and gamma rays. The normal human eye cannot see these types of light. But specialized sensors could translate these wavelengths into colors or shapes or numerical values so that the inspector could “naturally” see where the leak is coming from.
Ultimately, our BCN along with countless sensors on and under our skin, and on and within our clothing, could produce any interpretation of the external world that we prefer. This actually is quite a fascinating possibility. The way we interpret our surroundings is based on some pre-specified set of instructions. Whether one believes that this was divine software or mindless universal evolutionary chance, our nervous system is already pre-set to interpret blue in the way that we see blue.
Colorblind people will perceive certain colors differently due to a genetic hiccough. But what if the entire world decided that being, what is presently termed, colorblind, is actually a more efficient way to see the world. Via our BCNs, we could all agree on a new and universal means of interpretation for a given set of visual inputs. So we could all see a certain wavelength of light in the exact same way, because we will have all programmed our BCN to interpret that specific wavelength as a certain color.
Some of what I’m saying is self-referential and I apologize if I have not said it clearly enough. The take away message is that once we can effectively hack our own brains, we can decide how we want our brains to work. Each person might have a certain way that suits them better. Or, on some issues, people might choose to all experience certain inputs in the exact same way. Ultimately we will have a level of choice which was never imagined. I won’t even dare try predict what effect such power will have on our own psyches. When we know that we can re-code ourselves, how will that change our perception of self?
At this point, I am walking a very fine line between metaphysics and science. I will end this particular post simply by saying, as I have said before, that we are quickly becoming beings without limits. This has a tremendous potential for good but a very dangerous potential for destruction. We have to be responsible. We have to be moral. We definitely all have to be very careful. But I personally cannot help but be tremendously excited by the potential of unlimited potential.
Thanks for listening