The Plug-and-Play Brain

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(The following excerpt from The Plug-and-Play Brain by Gary Marcus and Christof Koch recently appeared on onlinewsj.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)

What would you give for a retinal chip that let you see in the dark or for a next-generation cochlear implant that let you hear any conversation in a noisy restaurant, no matter how loud? Or for a memory chip, wired directly into your brain’s hippocampus, that gave you perfect recall of everything you read? Or for an implanted interface with the Internet that automatically translated a clearly articulated silent thought (“the French sun king”) into an online search that digested the relevant Wikipedia page and projected a summary directly into your brain?

Science fiction? Perhaps not for very much longer. Brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago. They are not risk-free and make sense only for a narrowly defined set of patients—but they are a sign of things to come.

Unlike pacemakers, dental crowns or implantable insulin pumps, neuroprosthetics—devices that restore or supplement the mind’s capacities with electronics inserted directly into the nervous system—change how we perceive the world and move through it. For better or worse, these devices become part of who we are.

Neuroprosthetics aren’t new. They have been around commercially for three decades, in the form of the cochlear implants used in the ears (the outer reaches of the nervous system) of more than 300,000 hearing-impaired people around the world. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first retinal implant, made by the company Second Sight.

Both technologies exploit the same principle: An external device, either a microphone or a video camera, captures sounds or images and processes them, using the results to drive a set of electrodes that stimulate either the auditory or the optic nerve, approximating the naturally occurring output from the ear or the eye.

An early generation of enhancement implants might help elite golfers improve their swing by automating their mental practice. A later generation might allow weekend golfers to skip practice altogether. Once neuroscientists figure out how to reverse-engineer the end results of practice, “neurocompilers” might be able to install the results of a year’s worth of training directly into the brain, all in one go.

That won’t happen in the next decade or maybe even in the one after that. But before the end of the century, our computer keyboards and trackpads will seem like a joke; even Google Glass 3.0 will seem primitive. Why would you project information onto your eyes (partly occluding your view) when you could write information into your brain so your mind can directly interpret it? Why should a computer wait for you to say or type what you mean rather than anticipating your needs before you can even articulate them?

By the end of this century, and quite possibly much sooner, every input device that has ever been sold will be obsolete. Forget the “heads-up” displays that the high-end car manufactures are about to roll out, allowing drivers to see data without looking away from the road. By the end of the century, many of us will be wired directly into the cloud, from brain to toe.

Will these devices make our society as a whole happier, more peaceful and more productive? What kind of world might they create?

It’s impossible to predict. But, then again, it is not the business of the future to be predictable or sugarcoated. As President Ronald Reagan once put it, “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”

The augmented among us—those who are willing to avail themselves of the benefits of brain prosthetics and to live with the attendant risks—will outperform others in the everyday contest for jobs and mates, in science, on the athletic field and in armed conflict. These differences will challenge society in new ways—and open up possibilities that we can scarcely imagine.

 Science fiction? Perhaps not for very much longer. Brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago. They are not risk-free and make sense only for a narrowly defined set of patients—but they are a sign of things to come.

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