“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on unreasonable men.” — George Bernard Shaw
I believe that a revolutionary shift in our way of life will occur this century based on two scientific fields. The first wave of change has already begun and is led by genetics. That is why I’ve decided to become a professional in the life sciences. There is, however, another area which will lead to a profound change in our species and in our society: cybernetics or the discovery of robotic enhancements and replacements to the human body; this includes human-machine interfaces, virtual experiences, and eventually artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.
With the advent of miniaturization, the integration of artificial devices with our body will be a major part of the future, even before nanotech. RFID (radio frequency identification) chips with a unique ID are already used to monitor animals, and many people implant them as well, but that is only the beginning. For example, several groups of scientists are developing microrobots capable of operating inside the human body. A few years ago, Illinois scientists successfully implanted silicon microchips beneath human retinas for the first time, a procedure that holds promise for millions of people with failing eyesight. Wearable computers will be included in us. Kevin Warwick already implanted a chip in his arm to study nervous signals. Finally, a team from Tohuku University, in Japan, led by Kazushi Ishiyama developed tiny spinning screws, eight by one millimeters, that can swim along veins and may have biomedical applications.
The major developments in cybernetics and cyberbiology will occur when computers are linked directly to the human nervous system. Simple deep brain stimulators and cochlear implants have been around for years, and breakthroughs in this area have been staggering. It is possible to use the nerves of the arm to control bionic arms or even other machines — e.g., computer-controlled electrodes can be used to stimulate hand muscles by moving the shoulder. In another example, a digital video camera was used to replace the eyes of a blind man; electrical signals were processed by a micro-computer and then transmitted to the nerves in the visual cortex by way of electrodes giving the patient an archaic but effective vision as bright dots, resembling a stadium display.
Communicating with the brain is becoming increasingly powerful. It’s possible to control the mouse of the computer by thinking certain movements. A type of helmet is used to analyze the activity of the brain by measuring brain waves and then inform the computer what the human is thinking of. Jos� Del Millan’s team in Italy built a system of measuring brain patterns in which a patient chose letters solely by thinking of certain movements. In another experiment, a patient who suffered a brain stem stroke was linked to a computer; communication was achieved by using a hollow glass cone with gold recording wires treated with neurotrophic factors. The patient learned how to control the signal so that it acted as a binary switch. Moreover, a group of scientists was able to read monkey’s thoughts and transmit them as commands to a robot. A team led by Melody Moore is attempting to listen and interpret brain activity. Using neurotrophic electrodes directly linked to the brain, they are trying to have handicapped people perform basic functions on computers. Another goal of the same system is to allow mute individuals to speak by simply thinking of the words. Finally, mice were trained using a system of rewards to pull a lever; scientists identified the activity of the brain giving the signal to pull the lever; being able to detect the thought for the action, scientists gave the reward to the mice simply if the animals thought about pulling the lever; mice soon learned that by thinking about pulling the lever instead of actually pulling it they would get their reward.
The future will see the human brain merge with computers. For example, a team led by Christine Schmidt of the University of Texas used molecular switches in living cells to establish selective contact with neurons. A cadmium sulfide acts as photodetector, allowing communication with the cells using precise wavelengths of light. Coding peptides that coated quantum dots, the scientists controlled the spacing of hundreds of quantum dots on the membrane of neurons. This research opens the door for using specific peptide sequences to manipulate neurons. Likewise, Ed Boyden and colleagues at MIT have been working on synthetic neurobiology to analyze and understand brain circuits as well as potentially develop the tools to target information in the brain in order to fix cognitive disorders.
A great deal of control can already be achieved over insects and even mice, almost like controlling an electronic toy. For example, Yale scientists embedded a special “receiver” in the nerve cells of fruit flies that allowed them to mind-control the animals using a laser light. Cybernetic control over humans will eventually be explored. In the future, it will be possible to control other people’s mind by, for example, nanodevices or electrochemical impulses. A virus or nanomachine that penetrates the brain and changes its network so that the victim becomes a supporter of a certain ideology is not very far into the future. This can open the door to despotism and like many technologies cybernetics could have dangerous applications. In recent years the US military has started to invest in technologies inspired by the movie Avatar with the ultimate aim of developing systems that allow soldiers to control the bodies of robots on the battlefield.
Artificial Intelligence Meets the Human Mind
If the human brain can communicate with computers, then it is theoretically possible to enhance the human mind. For example, Ted Berger’s lab is working on brain implants to restore and enhance memories. Furthermore, a research group headed by Ehud Shapiro at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel used living cells to develop a biological nanocomputer. By using the DNA machinery as hardware and DNA molecules as software, they created a mathematical computing machine, called a finite automaton. A biological nanocomputer opens the door for creating computers that can augment human intellectual abilities.
Elsewhere, I defend that we, humans, are information and information processing systems. What is a computer? Exactly that. So computers can be made intelligent; they simply don’t yet have the processing power and capacity to reach the level of the human mind. If Moore’s law holds (optical, DNA, atomic and quantum computers seem to hold good prospects in maintaining Moore’s law for the near future), then based on estimates of the processing speed of the human brain, around 2035 we might have computers more intelligent than us. Therefore, many of us alive now may face computers more intelligent than us. The obvious fear, reinforced by science fiction stories, is that they will treat us like we treat animals. One solution is that instead of attempting to control computers, we may evolve with them. We can use computers to increase our own knowledge and intelligence. I have no doubt that incorporating computers to augment our present condition is the future of humankind. The fusion of computers with human tissue is already becoming a reality which will allow us to improve our mental and sensory skills. Imagine that to learn a certain profession all you need is to load the information into your brain. This is not science fiction and it may occur in the the future of people alive today.
The obscurity in which our brain works is still a major setback to these ideas. Much work remains in cognitive informatics and artificial intelligence before we can understand and simulate our brain in silico. Besides, one thing is to incorporate a memory chip in the brain so that we can have a certain amount of information at a given time. A totally different thing is changing the neuronal architecture of the brain to fit it to a certain profession. Unless we can incorporate these functions in a precise area of the brain that we can easily manipulate, either wetware or in silico, it’s not going to be easy for our mind to assimilate a whole profession. Probably many areas of the brain are related to a profession since many programs are involved and many areas of the brain process those programs, so it’s not going to be an easy task. Nevertheless, I’m confident that we’ll be able to instantaneously manipulate the brain to a great extent by electrochemical impulses. Increasing our memory is only the most immediate advantage but I’m sure others will follow. We can even reach the point of substituting the whole brain by a new framework.
In theory, if computers continue to evolve, we will too have to evolve or we will eventually become obsolete. One day it may be possible to reverse engineer the brain, to fully understand the mind of an individual and transfer the information to a system. Although, for reasons I expose elsewhere, I don’t think it will be possible to transfer our mind into another entity, it may be possible to copy a person’s mind into a computer, something called mind uploading. We will have clones of our mind. If the system can process the information faster than the human mind, we will then become obsolete, unless we make our processing framework work faster too.
By way of brain implants it will become possible to exchange information by telepathy. We will be able to easily and quickly interact with other people and with the computer-based environment. Using the same rationale, it might become possible to control the human brain by radio signals at specific frequencies and transmitting specific information. Military applications will be huge, as hinted above already. Instead of flying a plane, pilots can be attached to the plane and even feel the plane’s structure from the inside and thus controlling it much more perfectly.
We can reach a point when the exchange of information between minds happens at such a pace that hours of conversation will be condensed into a few seconds or milliseconds. A massive recombination of information will occur. This may, in some cases, mean a merge between the minds of two people. It may even be possible to mass connect many minds to achieve a state of super-intelligence. We might lose our individuality but it might be the only way for humankind to survive, as I debate elsewhere.
“The conquests of the mind of man will never cease.” — August Weismann
Overall, I described above many futuristic ideas and scenarios that stir our imagination. I believe we will become posthuman beings because of biological changes, like genetics, but also because of cybernetics. Each of us will have its own technological singularity; each of us will have its own upgrades and mechanical parts; we will become part organic part mechanic: cyborgs. In fact, scientists created an organisms half fish, half robot: a creature with a mechanical body controlled by the brain of a fish. Scientists extracted the brainstream and part of the spinal cord of a lamprey and then attached electrodes at a specific frequency to a special kind of neurons responsible for integrating command and sensory signals directed to the motor nerves while other electrodes monitored the axons, which are sort of the output of the circuitry; the brain was also wired into the robot making it respond to light stimuli in a variety of behaviors depending on the light. It’s no longer science fiction, it’s the future.
Sources and Links
Damásio, António R.; “Descartes’ Error; Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain” (1995). A good book by a renowned Portuguese neurologist.
Dubois, Daniel; “Le labyrinthe de l’intelligence” (1991).
Sagan, Carl; “The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence” (1997).
Russia 2045; project that aims to construct a Synthetic Humanoid Body.
Copyright © 1997 – 2002, 2004, 2006, 2012 by João Pedro de Magalhães. All rights reserved.