About once a week, I get a call from someone with a strong East Asian accent named Martha or Ralph or something else traditionally American. They tell me that they are calling from the “Microsoft Service Center” or “your computer service contract provider” because my computer is generating error messages, which they would like to help me fix.
Obviously, this is a scam. I never let them get far into their pitch, so I’m not sure what they want to do. They’re probably just selling some sort of diagnostic and cleanup program, but who knows, they may be trying to get people to install malware controlled by someone with bad intentions. The last few times I got one of these calls, I said, “Oh, thanks for calling. Could you wait a minute while I turn on call recording? I always record my service calls.”
Of course, the caller hangs up immediately. I admit that this is a very clever con, though. The area I live in is full of wealthy older people who use computers but lack much expertise. Some are essentially clueless. I suspect quite a few people in this demographic have fallen for this scam and paid for the right to install who-knows-what on their computers. My kids, however, would know better—which brings up the generational divide in tech savvy.
It’s not always the case, of course, that older people are technologically illiterate and young people are up to date on computer issues. In general, however, there’s an odd inversion of knowledge, with older people knowing less about emerging technologies than younger people. You’d expect this with things like contemporary music, but it’s somewhat troubling that many seniors seem oblivious to the technologies that are changing the world.
I guess the reason I’m bringing this up is that I’ve been thinking a lot about direct brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) and their consequences, including the construction of group and augmented minds. As I’ve said here before, I think the ability to connect brains with computers as well as other brains is profoundly important. It will, in fact, change human society in ways we have only begun to consider.
However, it seems to me that when I talk to older people, the general reaction to this subject is incomprehension or skepticism (el Jefe John Mauldin is a clear exception). When I talk to my kids or their friends, they quickly extrapolate the implications and consequences of the biological brain’s ability to communicate on a deep non-verbal and unconscious level with machines and other brains.
This is good, for my kids at least, because extraordinary progress is being made in BMI research. Two recent reports published by Nature make this case powerfully. Both involve Dr. Miguel Nicolelis of the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, who has been driving this field for some time. I’ve written about him before and undoubtedly will again.
One of the articles, which is available free of charge online and for download, is “Computing Arm Movements with a Monkey Brainet.” I love the title. Brainet is a great word for what he created. It also references Skynet, the embodiment of artificial intelligence that scares so many people.
Nicolelis, using neural implants, linked monkeys to one another and to a robotic arm. Though each of the three wired monkeys could only control part of the robot’s movements, the monkey Brainet quickly learned to use the robot for its own purposes. The other article, “Building an organic computing device with multiple interconnected brains,” describes the use of linked rat brains to solve “useful computational problems, such as discrete classification, image processing, storage and retrieval of tactile information, and even weather forecasting.”
Both of these papers fulfill predictions I’ve made in the past, based on the nature of DNA and animal brains. To survive and replicate, animal brains have to be extraordinarily good at recognizing patterns and solving problems. We know from observing animals and humans that have suffered brain damage that brains are incredibly adaptive—they’re capable of converting parts of the brain to take over functions that were previously performed by missing parts. I’m convinced this means that human brains could utilize and control computers.
I have enormous respect for Nicolelis, but I think even he would admit that the real brains behind his experiments are… the brains. To get a good overview of his recent work and the astonishment it has caused in the scientific community, you should really read this article in the New Scientist titled, “Animal brains connected up to make mind-melded computer.”
One scientist (who was not involved in the experiment) believes electronically linked human brains might be able to perform complex tasks outside the capabilities of the individual members of the Brainet. Andrea Stocco of the University of Washington in Seattle speculates that the technology might even enable non-verbal communication of complex mathematical concepts.
A device that allows information transfer between brains could, in theory, allow us to do away with language—which plays the role of a “cumbersome and difficult-to-manage symbolic code”, Stocco says.
“I could send thoughts from my brain to your brain in a way not represented by sounds or words,” says Andrew Jackson at Newcastle University, UK. “You could envisage a world where if I wanted to say ‘let’s go to the pub’, I could send that thought to your brain,” he says. “Although I don’t know if anyone would want that. I would rather link my brain to Wikipedia.”
I share Stocco’s queasiness about communicating with another brain through electronic telepathy, but I’m intrigued by the prospect of having direct neural control of a Blue Gene/Q supercomputer. If this seems farfetched to you, it doesn’t to many scientists. One company in my portfolio, a maker of sophisticated medical devices, is thinking hard about this area and is currently pursuing technologies and IP that could help make it happen. (If you want to learn more about that company, you can give my Transformational Technology Alert a risk-free try.)
The impact of human/computer Brainets is bound to be interesting. Already, stock traders are disadvantaged by supercomputers running sophisticated algorithms to profit from trends that take place within microseconds. The competition is so fierce that major brokerages pay fortunes to place their machines near the computers that run stock exchanges because the electron signals traveling at the speed of light can win by virtue of proximity. However, these algorithms are static, so a human element would deliver a significant advantage over simple machines.
Many of the most difficult biotech problems, such as protein folding and DNA data analysis, are now being tackled in silico by supercomputers. I’d love to see what a human brain could bring to the process. Of course, we don’t really know yet how this developing technology will play out, but I’m pretty sure the impact will be surprising and enormous. I’m also willing to bet that the first people who have the hardware installed to link with computers are not going to ask the FDA’s permission.
I’m talking a lot more about direct brain interfaces (DBIs) and the biotech singularity in my upcoming ebook, to be released this summer.
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