Better Than The Borg: The Neurotech Era

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What if you could read my mind? What if I could beam what I’m seeing, hearing, and thinking, straight to you, and vice versa? What if an implant could store your memories, augment them, and make you smarter?

Long the stuff of science fiction, technology that can directly tap into, augment, and connect human brains is becoming science fact. And that means big changes for all of us.

Consider what we’ve already done – getting data in and out of the human brain:

Hearing – At least 200,000 people alive today use a cochlear implant. A cochlear implant looks like a hearing aid, but it works quite differently. It takes sound waves in the environment and transforms them into nerve impulses to the auditory nerve. In creating it, we’ve tapped into and partially decoded the way the nervous system represents sound.

Sight – In 2002, researchers restored vision to a blind man by wiring the output from a digital camera directly into the primary visual cortex in his brain. A Matrix-style jack from the camera went straight into his brain, enabling him to see, though both his eyes had long since been destroyed. Now a related technology is on the verge of FDA approval for widespread use in blind patients.

Video Out – Researchers have also shown that by using an fMRI brain scanner, they can reconstruct what a person is seeing, demonstrating that we can get visual data both into and out of the human brain.

Motion – In 2000, a quadriplegic patient named Johnny Ray became the first to receive a brain implant that would allow him to move a cursor by thought.  Now, even better versions of the technology are in human trials. Last year, researchers published a video of a paralyzed woman using a robot arm to feed herself chocolate by thinking about it.

All of these are crude technologies.  They are very very early versions of a technology that is just getting started. Yet as engineers produce better methods for increasing the amount of data that can go in and out of the brain, the fidelity of sight and sound and the accuracy of movement will increase.

What’s more, in animals, researchers are going beyond simple sensation or motion.  They’re starting to tap into higher functions.  For example:

Memory – In 2011, researchers working on ways to repair damage to the hippocampus – part of the human brain that’s critical for forming new memories – demonstrated that their artificial ‘hippocampus chip’ could actually improve memory in rats.

Intelligence – In 2012, a team at Wake Forest University went further. They trained rhesus monkeys on a task that was, in a crude sense, a monkey IQ test. As the monkeys learned, a brain implant in their frontal cortex – the part of the brain involved in decision making and attention – watched how the monkey’s brains worked and learned those patterns. Then the researchers impaired the monkeys’ performance on those tests by giving them doses of cocaine. What the researchers found was that, as they hoped, turning the implant on could undo the temporary damage done by the cocaine. But more than that, it could improve the monkeys’ performance on the test, beyond their baseline scores.

If we can manipulate memory and intelligence, we may also be able to communicate memories or thoughts from person to person. Scientists are already discussing the impact of wiring two hippocampus chips together.

What would it mean to be able to communicate sensory data directly from one mind to another?  To show someone what you’re seeing, imagining, thinking, or feeling?  What would it mean to have neural prosthesis that would augment our memory, our attention, our decision making?

These changes could fundamentally empower individuals. They could make us smarter and more productive. But more importantly, by enhancing our ability to communicate, they could supercharge the process of innovation that today relies on the connections between minds.  Just as the printing press, by improving the spread of ideas, helped bring on the Renaissance, mind to mind connections could herald a new era of progress.

At the same time, these technologies raise new and sinister issues.  If our brains are wired together by electronics, will we be vulnerable to bugs? Software crashes? Computer viruses and malware?  Perhaps more importantly, who will be in control?  Will governments use this technology to spy on and oppress their people, as in 1984?  Will they turn us into a version of Star Trek’s Borg?

Or will enhanced neurotechnology, like other information technologies, primarily serve as a new tool for liberty?

My bet is on the latter.  Throughout history the ability to communicate has supercharged our rate of innovation, has boosted our collective intelligence, and has worked to expand our individual freedoms and capabilities.

Whatever the answers, we are entering the neurotech era.  There is no turning back.

Ramez Naam is an adjunct faculty member at Singularity University and fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. In his new novel NexusRamez explores the impacts of neurotechnology on individuals, governments, and civil liberties. 

Featured image: maltman23/Flickr

Ramez Naam

Ramez Naam is a computer scientist and the H.G. Wells Award-winning author of three books, most recently his nanotechnology and neuroscience thriller Nexus, and his book on innovating to save the world, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

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Discussion — 5 Responses

  • DigitalGalaxy January 26, 2013 on 5:33 pm

    Why is this article titled “Better than the Borg?” Seems we have a ways to go before we are roaming the galaxy in Cubes. Where’s my Cortical Implant already????

    All joking aside, this article raises real questions. And they are not all good ones.

    For one, when are we going to stop experimenting on animals? Many of these promising experimental results were brought about with barbaric methods, and they weren’t to produce life saving medications. As our technology continues to advance, our morals will need to keep pace, and right now they are nowhere near close.

    For two, is it possible that pure biological brains have the ADVANTAGE of being private? As the author mentioned, can you imagine jacking your brain into the Internet and getting a virus? You can’t just run a Malwarebytes scan on your own brain!! Also, is it possible to jack into someone’s brain to retrieve information as a form of interrogation? How could such a practice be controlled or banned? Would certain mental training routines act like a “firewall” to brain scans? Is this something that carries so much potential for disaster that people will prefer to stay in the archaic, sane world of touchscreen devices rather than jack themselves in directly? I personally don’t know if I would join the hive mind or not; there needs to be an opt-out process for the Collective!

    Thirdly, we already have global instant communication with email, Skype, and texting. Is the potential gain (shaving nanoseconds off of our current instantaneous communication) worth the risk (exposing our brain to software threats)?

    And perhaps most importantly, (I don’t mean to derail the comments, but this article is getting to the heart of it!) for all this progress in brain science, there has been no inkling of what produces our actual conscious experience. The brain remains a biological computer, and no amount of brain interface technology is going to change that. There is no room for sensory impressions, true free will, or feelings and emotions in a computer, biological or otherwise. Where, then, do our sensory impressions originate? What changes encoded neural impulses from the optic nerve into what we see as color? Where are we supposed to find our spirituality when the last neuron has been probed and cataloged, when the last brain wave exists as a backup in the cloud? What was once a purely philosophical question is going to become a very real subject of inquiry. Either we find some strange influx of unaccounted-for energy in the pineal gland, or we will need to turn to theories such as those advanced by Amit Goswami to explain where our feelings, emotions, spirituality and free will originate from.

    Not that I wouldn’t give just about anything to ride around the galaxy in a Cube…but the issues raised in Star Trek are more relevant today than they were when Star Trek was aired. What happens to your individuality when all that exists is a global hive mind? Where do morals enter the picture when humans posses such limitless power? How would a race stop itself from becoming something very similar to the Borg in such a state of technological eusociality?

    And how long do us ‘biological’ humans have left? If some of us choose to forego neural implants in all but the most severe of medical emergencies…will we look like the Amish a century from now, held back by fear of the unknown, of progress stealing our humanity from us? Or will those who decline their ticket on the neural implant train be the only survivors of a mass ‘brain virus’ outbreak, when somebody thinks its funny to release a virus the inserts a divide by zero error into the hive mind? Could you be the victim of a neural “DDoS attack” that shuts down your mind and sends you into a coma?

    As a precaution against such a calamity, will society designate people to ‘stay behind’ in a non-hive mind reality to restore ‘brain backups’ to affected people if such a virus does hit?

    The people I most worry about are science fiction writers. What on earth are they going to write about now?

  • Robert Schreib January 26, 2013 on 5:39 pm

    ?? If we do get neural augmentation implants, they will have to come with a super sophisticated buffer. Our brains can do amazing adaptations, but we do NOT think at electronic speeds, and even the strongest of brains can suffer information overload even without such bionic brain implants.

  • nbourbaki January 28, 2013 on 10:27 pm

    “Video Out – Researchers have also shown that by using an fMRI brain scanner, they can reconstruct what a person is seeing, demonstrating that we can get visual data both into and out of the human brain.’

    If the author is referring to the work Shinji Nishimoto and team at UC Berkeley has done on recognizing patterns of cerebral flow and mapping that to a set of images via a computer program, that’s hardly demonstrating that we can get visual data into and out of a brain. The study was fascinating, but nowhere near what the author is suggesting.

  • James Thornton January 29, 2013 on 3:38 pm

    Why examples from 2000?

    That’s like a hundred years ago.

  • Robert Schreib April 28, 2013 on 4:24 pm

    Wouldn’t all this create a society called a ‘Technocracy’, where the people with the most expensive ‘toys’ lording over all the hardtech-deprived masses? That’s a common theme in comic books about future societies, and, at least in the military industrial arenas, he who has the most toys wins!!!