As developments in neuroscience and new technologies reveal more and more about the inner workings of our brain, decoding the brain’s neural activity might change how we perceive and relate to the world. Understood as a moment in an evolution towards more intimate interfaces and control of things, brain-computer interfaces (BCI) will have significant and disruptive effects on our lives.
- As part of $65 million research program funded by DARPA to develop neural implants for human brains to speak directly with computer interfaces, scientists at Brown University are developing very small ‘neurograin’ sensors, the size of a salt grain. This ‘neural dust’ contains electrodes to detect neural firings and shoots neurons using an RF antenna. Other scientists at the University of Berkeley provided the first demonstration of ultrasonic neural dust to measure neural activity in animals.
- Facebook revealed last year that it is working on a technology to let people type 100 words per minute straight from their brains, using ‘silent speech interfaces’.
- Last year, the start-up Neurable revealed the first mind-controlled VR game. Instead of controllers or a mouse and keyboard, gamers can roam the virtual worlds with their thoughts.
- Elon Musk established the neurotechnology start-up Neuralink in 2016, with the aim of developing BCIs. Little is known about what Neuralink is doing, but Tim Urban argued on his website that Musk perceives the communication speed of BCIs’ as necessary if people do not want to be left behind (or controlled by) general AI systems.
Connecting the dots
The neural activity of the brain can be explained by making an analogy to stadiums: from outside the stadium, you can hear cheering and shouting about what is going on, but to know which team is winning or who scored, you need inside information. The same goes with the brain: from the outside, you can see what is going on, but to get a high-resolution image of the brain’s information and experiences, scientists need to look inside our skulls. Recent developments in neuroscience and technology show that we are at the beginning of understanding how we can monitor the neural activity of the brain and map the experiences we have. A further step is understanding how we can manipulate this information and inner states of the brain, for example to restore biological functionalities like sight and sense. The ‘only’ thing needed are interfaces to directly exchange this information and encode and decode information from the sender’s brain to recipients.
Although the possible use cases and wider implications are astonishing, the idea of these BCIs is conceptually not something new. On a basic level, BCIs enhance and transfer information from the brain by using external sources and devices. Previous innovations already did the same, and even the first language and scripture fixed the thoughts of the mind into a codified system of (semantic) symbols and verbal utterances to make communication of information more efficient. With the Gutenberg press, the speed of this communication of information and ideas further improved, and the dawn of modern IT, such as computers, e-mails, and smartphones, the speed of information diffusion and communication further accelerated.
By calling our friends and talking about our problems or writing blogs on the internet about our favorite food, the brain is able to externalize the information that is inside. In this sense, BCIs are just a further improvement of spreading information and communicating inner states and experiences.
However, BCIs also increase the resolution and accuracy of the communication of brain information towards external sources, giving BCIs more disruptive power than restoring biological functionality alone. The higher accuracy of BCIs enables us to have immediate contact with other human or synthetic brains. Furthermore, when multiple brains get connected to one cloud platform they create a collective consciousness. This ‘hive mind’ can be very useful for problems that require collaboration, like scientific problems, or human interaction with AI systems. Moreover, when BCIs are be connected to other cloud databases on the internet, we can download requested information at any time: when going on holiday, one can download a travel guide that is accessed and consumed via one’s BCI. ‘Electroceuticals’, devices that control the electronic signal firing within the nerve system, can help to fight chronic illnesses, but can also improve our current biological capacities, like our reflexes or football skills. These examples show that as the brain becomes our interface, it will create a whole new way of relating and experiencing our world.
- Transferring the neural activity of first-person experiences renders the process of encoding and decoding our experiences into words, sounds, and images obsolete. Eliminating the reduction and interpretation of experiences, for example explaining how sad you feel or the excitement you get when racing, creates new possibilities for media companies. For example, entertainment companies can use BCIs to transfer first-person experiences directly into BCIs, creating more immersive experiences.
- Important neural ‘IP’, like Cristiano Ronaldo’s neural wiring, may become increasingly valuable as it can become directly ‘commodified’ into downloadable inputs. The other way around, whole-brain interfaces might enable the uploading of our mind into external hard-drives, so that we can download our minds to other places.
- A BCI that tracks parts or all our neural activity also bears large risks and privacy issues. For example, our BCI can be hacked and spill our greatest secrets, while terrorist groups can harm or kill us from a distance.