Technology Bordering on Fantasy

Jul 23, 2019

As Arthur Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Pretty soon, everyone will have a chance to feel like a wizard. We will answer the phone with a wave of a hand; remember the whole library to the letters and learn a trade in one night. You still don’t get what it’s about, do you? Then you should definitely get to know about the brain-computer interface (BCI).

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has considered the very possibility of a human and computer’s «symbiosis» as early as the 1960s. It means that the military were one of the first who have been interested in this technology. However, it’s not surprising because at that time the Cold War was at its peak.

The basis of such a seemingly complex technology is the teaching of I. P. Pavlov on such a primitive thing as classical conditioning. Yes, this is where the experiments were done on dogs. Later American scientists started to develop this technology and in the mid-90s after long-time experiments, they managed to implant the first devices into the human body to track biological information and send it to a computer.

This achievement gave the opportunity to restore damaged hearing, eyes, and motor activity. The last one is especially noteworthy because this is about neuroprosthetics – direct limb control without involving the spinal cord.

Well, what opportunities will this technology provide to consumers? Because nowadays such large companies as Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft or Facebook bet big on its development. First of all, BCI will allow creating new types of controller devices. Their prototypes are presented in the form of wrist bracelets, which track signals of the neurons in the brain and transform them into computer algorithms. Obviously, these devices will be cross-platform, but first, they are going to replace the computer mouse and keyboard.

Besides, new types of devices will be perfectly combined with virtual reality because they really allow you to become a part of it without holding a push-button controller device or a good old accelerometer. Gentle finger movement will be enough for controlling.

Next, we consider, at first glance, the incredible and so necessary for all of us the ability to download data directly into the brain. But for this purpose, it’s necessary to create BCI with the biofeedback. Therefore, the device should be able not only to receive human brain signals but also to send out its own.

We’re making progress! For example, in 2016, the scientists at HRL Laboratories in California have done the experiment during which they took two groups of rookie pilots and… just started to teach them piloting. However, during training, some parts of pilots’ brain from one of the groups were subject to electrical stimulation, which simulated the brain activity of more experienced pilots carrying out the same tasks.

On the fourth day of the experiment, it turned out that the stimulated subjects were 33% superior to the other group of pilots. So training itself remained unchanged, but scientists were able to strengthen its effect significantly.

The new technology provides many opportunities, but it has its flaws. For example, the high price for the equipment. Also, it will take a long time for us to get used to new controllers because they literally have no analogs. Although the systems developers assure that executing basic commands will be no more difficult than typing on the keyboard. As all the commands are carried out by gestures, with a certain skill it will be possible to imagine yourself a magician, so this is more a benefit.

In addition, the devices themselves will need adapting to the signals of a particular person. Fortunately, the controllers based on BCI are much smarter than people are, therefore they will need no more than 5 minutes to adapt.

Finally, the idea of data loading into the brain also has two sides. This will allow instantly memorizing a large amount of information, but if you were accidentally (or on purpose) upload several hundred videos or books of erotic content into the brain, how to delete them later? Yes, rickrolling will probably reach a fundamentally new level. ☺

In order to implement this technology, researchers need to understand which neurons in the brain give the commands to the body; there are two ways to find it out: either use a non-invasive method, such as electromyography or insert an implant into the brain.

Of course, the first method is more convenient, and the second one is more effective. At the moment, both methods are developing hand in hand, but a kind of “revolution” took place a couple of years ago – scientists managed to create a microscope, which is placed directly on the brain and tracks neuron signals. By the way, its development was a project of the United States Department of Defense that is already known to us. It seems like the military really wants to help people with eye injuries and hearing damages.

To sum up, at this stage of development, we can only be content with individual prototypes and concepts of neurocomputer interfaces, and all the more for the exorbitant amount of money, and the introduction of technology to the masses will have to wait a couple of decades. Indeed, the technological singularity is expected in the next 25 years, and the computing power of quantum computers will be an excellent help in promoting this technology.

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