The setting: your home. The time: 7:30pm, in the not-too-distant future.
Your room is dim and cool, and the hum of a city evening drifts through the open windows. Your computer screen’s high-frequency flicker casts shadows all around. The metal object in your hand resembles an old-school headphone jack. It’s small and surprisingly heavy. You heft it once, twice, admiring its simplicity and craftsmanship. In the time it takes to draw a breath, you plunge it into a socket in the back of your neck.
The world blurs into dizzy static for a tenth of a second, and then it’s back. But it’s not just back, it’s somehow more. Everything around you is pregnant with invisible layers of meaning. All the world is tied together, and you’re plugged into it like a spider in the middle of a 3-dimensional web. In seconds, you start brewing a pot of coffee, tap into a virtual-reality newsfeed, pipe some music into your auditory cortex, and fire up your latest project so you can get to work. All without moving a muscle.
Is the future awesome, or what?
The paragraphs above may be fictional, but the rest of this post is not. You see, I’m going to discuss the device in the story, which is known to future-geeks as a BCI: a brain-computer interface. You can find them in The Matrix and a million other sci-fi movies and books, where characters jack their brains directly into computers (or machines, etc). The thing is, if you thought that BCIs were purely fictional, you were wrong! They’re rudimentary, but they’re here, and they’re only going to get better.
As exhibit A, I present you with BrainGate, a tech company that helped a paralyzed man control a mouse cursor through a wire in his brain. Awesome, no? Exhibit B is this device from the University of Plymouth that lets paralyzed people play the piano. There’s even Autonomos Labs, who made a car you can control with your mind. Check out the YouTube video below, it’s pretty nuts.
For those of you who still aren’t convinced, the ultimate acid test for any technology is whether it can be adapted into a mass-marketed toy. Pick up the Milton Bradley “Force Trainer,” and try out a rudimentary BCI for yourself!
Okay, so we can read brain waves and use them to drive cars, play music, and live out our Jedi dreams. But what about the other direction – can our brains receive digital input?
I’ve yet to find a human example, but one group has done this with monkeys. The animals could move a virtual arm while actually feeling what they were “touching” with it. Imagine telepathically controlling the Mars Rover… and feeling the Martian sand between your toes!
Obviously, these examples aren’t quite as advanced as in the little scene I opened with. I admit the technology is still in its infancy as of 2012. But here’s the key lesson:
It is possible in principle to lower or eliminate the barrier between minds and computers.
Everything after that is refinement. Like those who closely follow the singularity, I predict a day where interfacing your consciousness with a machine or computer will be an everyday event. And like them, I predict that the consequences of this will be myriad and confounding.
So, if you can swallow the “how”, you inevitably get to the more important question, which of course is “why?” As in, is it really a good idea for BCIs to grow more advanced? If they become widespread, what could we use them for? What might that mean for us as individuals, or as a society?
I’ve rambled on more than enough for one post, so I’m afraid the big questions will have to stew for another week. But stay tuned, because next Wednesday I’m offering my own take on the Top 5 Reasons to Plug Your Brain Into a Computer. [edit: link added] Spoiler alert! I’m going to wander off into some highly speculative yet very awesome places. Until then, talk amongst yourselves, and please feel free to kick off the conversation using the comment box below. Is this development awesome? Terrifying? Completely impossible? You tell me.Enjoy this post? Tell your friends using the buttons below. And don’t forget to subscribe in the upper right, or you’ll miss the next one!