Human brain consumes incredibly low amounts of energy, has great longevity, and requires little maintenance. No man-made computing hardware comes even close to a human brain in these qualities.
Right now, the brain is mostly a black box to us. We know verry little about how it works. As of yet, scientists have had a limited toolset to study the inner workings of a human brain. Devices that interface with the brain could help us better understand it, repair, and possibly improve it.
The most primitive technology that interfaces with the brain is the electroencephalogram, or EEG. Essentially, all it does is monitor and record electrical activity in the brain. More advanced devices would be able to provide stimuli to the brain cells and effect their activity.
A brain-to-machine interface was created by Neuralink, a startup founded by Elon Musk. It is a small round device, the size of a large coin with 1,024 tiny electrodes that are inserted into the outer layer of a brain. At the end of August, Elon Musk unveiled the device along with a surgical robot that is able to implant “The Link” into a human brain in under an hour without requiring general anesthesia.
Musk declared, the goal of Neuralink is to be able to solve serious health problems related to the brain and the spinal cord. With help from this device paraplegics might be able to regain motor and sensory abilities of their limbs. According to Musk, FDA granted approval for “breakthrough device” testing. This FDA program is designed to speed up testing and development of leading-edge products for treatment and diagnosis of life-threatening diseases.
In his product presentation Musk also talked about “conceptual telepathy”. This means that information could potentially be passed from one human brain to another directly, avoiding conventional means of communication we use today.
As a long-term prospect for digital brain implants, Musk paints a picture of a world where AI becomes much more powerful than an unarmed human brain. In this scenario, digital brain power enhancers will equip humans be on par, and to tackle potentially belligerent AI.
Musk talked about some Sci-Fi resembling use cases, such as “backing up and restoring your memories”. Medical research has shown that human memory could have a much greater capacity than most people are able to use in practice. Some scientists believe that our memory actually stores a lot more information than we can retrieve. In this regard, a brain-computer interface that enhances the way our memory functions could have interesting effects. What if we could suddenly remember all the things that we seem to have “forgotten” in the course of our lives?
Brain-to-machine interfacing devices might help us better understand how the brain actually works, but while we don’t have a thorough understanding of that, we don’t really know if a device like that would be safe in everyday life, or at least we cannot really be sure how it will affect our behavior and mental state and therefore, how it will change our daily lives. Shortly after Elon Musk’s demo, MIT Technology Review published an article, which criticizes the Neuralink project as too ambitious and overpromising.
If the Neuralink team is able to achieve their goal and make the brain-to-computer interface much more sophisticated, it is interesting to hypothesize on what implications it could have for our lives in the future. At some point, will not having a device implanted in one’s brain become a handicap? Will this lead to a much more drastic divide between the rich and the poor?
Many people will likely want to get their hands on such a device or, rather, get it in their heads. To draw a parallel with cosmetic surgery, which today can be an enticing way to feel better about one’s own looks, brain power enhancers can also attract people, who want to feel better about their mental abilities or gain a competitive edge over other people in the workplace, school, or other setting. That could spur popularity of such devices and make the price tag on such operations jump higher and higher.
With such devices, humans can not only have augmented abilities, but also have augmented virtual experiences and sensations, including non-human experiences, because humans can acquire virtual sensorial abilities and virtual extremities, or appendages. This could even lead to development of virtual drugs (narcotics).
Ethical concerns will certainly be raised on how this technology is tested on animals, and how human subjects are selected for testing once animal tests are done. There will also be concern of hackers intruding into devices that interface to the human brain. This could be the ultimate break of our privacy. It could also create new terrorist threats on massive scale.
Can immortality be achieved if consciousness can be transferred from one body to another, or to another medium? Would accelerated experiences become possible? Will people be confused about what is reality, and what is virtual? This technology can potentially change life a great deal, and future generations might be living in a completely different world.