Futurology blog: what’s the next trend that’ll disrupt our world, financially, socially or just pointlessly?

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

A direct Google interface for the brain

I have a terrible memory. So I’d like a little wireless widget that plugged directly into my brain and allowed me to access the internet during conversations and so on, to find out exactly what and how and where and when: names and places and dates and recipes, punchlines and song lyrics and movie plots and family birthdays.

Obviously there’s still a lot of science to crack, but I’m quite confident that it’ll come along in my lifetime. While the human brain is vastly more complex than even the most powerful supercomputer, they don’t seem to be utterly alien to one another. It would seem to me that the main problem to overcome is to figure out the ‘software’ that drives the brain’s physical structure and causes electrical impulses to travel in just the right way through our neurons.

Once that’s worked out, there would be two ways for our brain’s software to talk to our widget’s software.

The first would be for the device’s own software to ‘read’ impulses from nearby neurons, convert them into binary instructions and transmit them to a nearby computer or network. Then when the required information came back to the device, it would reverse the process and hand it back to the neurons in neuron-speak, and the neurons would convey the information to our consciousness.

So we’d simply have to think: “Winner of 100m final in Athens Olympics 2004?” and the answer would hopefully pop into our heads a second or two later: “Justin Gatlin.”

That seems logical. But if you do key in the question above into Google, the answer isn’t obvious on the first page of results. Gatlin’s name does pop up, but only in terms of reporters speculating whether he’ll win the 200m final. (Proving that Google’s algorithms are still far from perfect. There must be plenty of articles on the internet with the headline: “Gatlin wins 100m.”) Anyway, there’d be a whole lot of to-ing and fro-ing involved before getting the answer, kind of like trolling foreign-language websites via an interpreter.

Another problem is the form in which the data is presented to the brain: as a visual, as sound, as a smell? However it came in, we’d still have to process it into information.

What would probably work better is to let the brain learn how to ‘play’ the device, kind of like learning how to play the piano, really. This makes sense because our brains are superior to any piece of computing, learn faster and are more capable of working with ambiguous results. There would have to be a lot of adaptation on both sides: the device would have to be modified over and over to make it easier for the brain to interact with, and we’d have to develop some kind of instruction manual to help us use its full potential. Eventually we’d get to the point where using the device would be a reflex activity, exactly like playing the piano or touch-typing.

So far so good. And hopefully we’d ‘experience’ the data as ‘information’ rather than in any particular sensory format, so there’d be little further processing required.

But imagine we had such a device in our brains: what would be the effect on our thinking and the way we store memories? Some research has already shown that people who spend a lot of time on the internet don’t memorise as much information as people without internet access. Quite simply, why bother? We’ve become information analysts, not memory banks. It’s simply the best use of our brainpower.

So, given a direct line to the internet, we’d theoretically become more mentally effective at working with information, but if our access went down for some reason, we probably wouldn’t have quite so much data stored in our brains.

But a far more profound effect is that we could effectively become networked to each other, able to access each others’ memories, perceptions and thoughts. For better or worse, mindreading would become a real possibility. Personally, I’d imagine that we’d learn how to prevent an intrusion into our thoughts. But possibly, the ability to all ‘think together’ could have an incredible impact on the potential of the human race and its evolution.

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