The Brain-Computer Interface
Words by Lucy Turner
Is it no surprise that the founder of a company that seeks to aggressively speed up Brain Computer Interface (BCI) technology is the visionary, Elon Musk? His company, founded in 2016, named Neuralink aims to use and develop existing technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG) which goes further than an electrical device for neurofeedback. They are looking to mimic the biology of the neural network to strengthen brain activity in humans.
Remember when you accidentally left your phone at home and it caused you a considerable amount of stress? The smartphone is already an extension of mind as it acts as a bridge between the brain and artificial intelligence. A large part of our identity is stored in the cloud. Neuralink looks to close that gap with the concept of “Neuralace”. Musk has called it “an extra layer” as it will be a tertiary layer of our brain above our limbic system and neocortex.
Those with diseased and damaged nervous systems will be the primary users of this technology but it also seeks to address the age-old problem of communication. Consider its function in terms of input and output. We already have a high bandwidth visual interface into the brain as our eyes can take in a lot of information. This would provide a faster output.
With a faster output and the ability to transmit thoughts and even feelings to one another will see improved communication increasing the human capacity for empathy.
Both our limbic system and our neocortex are in constant competition, with each trying to do what it thinks is best for us. The problem is that the limbic system or paleo-mammalian cortex is stuck in a tribe 50,000 years ago. A primary example of this is commonplace obesity. Having control of our brain means that we could take advantage of sensory decoupling. Imagine experiencing the enjoyment of a slice of frosted cake whilst nourishing your body with nutrition suited to your current health condition, genetics and microbiome. And just as autonomous driving seeks to prevent motor accidents, a “Neuralace” could mitigate human error.
Companies such as Neuralink and Kernal are in full operation though remain fairly discrete in their plans for the future as the future has a habit of being uncertain. Evolution has met its catalyst.
The Potential vs. the Pitfalls
As Kernel develops their technology we could find ourselves with the ability to record memories and draw on them later with sharp recollection. The same goes with data. Just as Neo and Trinity downloaded programs of motor and cognitive abilities such as Kung Fu and helicopter piloting, we too could download skills. We are now able to watch movies on the internet for free but imagine a full sensory experience. The first commercial products will be pricey, just as with the first cell phones but the cost will decrease as the technology advances over time.
The potential does not exist without the perils. The driving factor behind this technology is to save our species against one that we designed by “upgrading” ourselves. Since their first design, computers have been modelled after the human mind. Early computer scientist John von Neumann’s introspection on thought allowed him to create mathematical models of the brain still used in computing today. Take away the math that same introspection fuels discussions of the mind as we seek to understand what makes a conscious mind. One philosophical question gives rise to many others. Consciousness is an extremely complex emergent property and the endeavour to add an even more sophisticated component to that system provides a whole lot of power to someone. There is certainly much to be said about the political issues that arise with just one question: who will govern the organisations that hold this power?
It is an interdisciplinary co-operation with many quests of innovation such as bandwidth and implantation. Our slow output rate of speech and typing would only be efficiently replaced if an interface conducted immediate bandwidth. The success of symbiosis with A.I. highly depends on the bandwidth. If the connectivity is not fast enough the A.I. will not effectively be a part of the brain; it would be separate and may, therefore, become a possible threat. A non-invasive method for implantation is needed as the invasive method of surgically implanting the brain is high risk and simply undesirable. Not to mention the issue of biocompatibility. Research initiatives such as the European Human Brain Project and US Brain Initiative that seek to understand the human brain will help to further advance this technology.
The power that the internet has given to trolls and ISIS, as well as computer hacking and system bugs are major causes for concern. Another spin, however, is the existence of such bad guys will generate an industry boom of brain security creating many jobs. There is, of course, the question of what makes us human? Our unique ability to have a subjective experience could be what enables our species to survive against the machines. This, however, opens up a whole new can of worms.
If evolution shows us anything it’s that humans are an adaptive species. Individually humans are animalistic or egoistic with our limbic systems driving emotions, but collectively humanity is becoming a connected organism of information. Data is the new gold. We don’t have the option (yet) to go back to the age before the internet when communicating with distant loved ones meant days of travel across the land on horse-back and access to information was scarce. Our brain evolved over millions of years and therefore it is not calibrated to comprehend the fast changes that are occurring in the world today. We must adapt so that we don’t get left behind.
The development of the BCI now has urgency like never before. The symbiotic interface is needed to allow our species survive as a new species of machine learning is born. As the saying goes, “if you can’t beat them, join them”.