The internet is overflowing with tips on how to hack your health. From increasing cognitive function by drinking butter-spiked coffee to tracking sleep, stress, and activity levels with increasingly sophisticated fitness wearables, ours is a culture obsessed with optimizing performance. Combining this ethos with recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, it’s practically inevitable that the next frontier in achieving superhuman status lies in the rapidly developing field of brain augmentation.
Artificial intelligence has already proven its value in making software more intuitive and user-friendly. From voice-activated personal assistants like Alexa and Siri to smarter app authentication through facial recognition technology, we have reached the point where people are starting to trust that the machines are here to improve our lives. The science fiction-based fear of bots taking over is being put to rest as consumers embrace the ease and enhanced security that AI brings to our daily lives. Now that artificial intelligence has nestled itself comfortably inside our smartphones, scientists are aiming higher with the next device hack: the human brain.
Visionary entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk and Bryan Johnson, have teamed up with scientists around the world to make brain augmentation a reality sooner than you may have thought possible. Simply put, the goal is to enhance intelligence and repair damaged cognitive abilities through brain implants. Duke University senior researcher Mikhail Lebedev, who recently published a comprehensive collection of 150 brain augmentation research papers and articles, is confident that brain augmentation will be an everyday reality by 2030.
Lebedev’s main focus of research is developing a device that can be fully implanted in the brain. Creating a power source and wireless communication system is a huge challenge, one that Elon Musk is also working on. Musk made headlines earlier this year with the launch of Neuralink, a company working on the development of what science fiction fans refer to as “neural lace,” or the merging of the human brain with software to optimize output of both biological and technological functioning. Musk hopes to offer a new treatment for severe brain traumas, including stroke and cancer lesions, in about four years.
With Neuralink still in its early stages, other Silicon Valley heavy hitters are eager to crack the code of brain augmentation. Braintree founder Bryan Johnson invested more than $100 million of personal funding to launch Kernel, a startup staffed by neuroscientists and engineers working to reverse the effects of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s through the creation of a neuroprosthetic in the form of a tiny embeddable chip. Scientists admit that much more research into how neurons function and interact needs to happen before neural code can be written by computers, but the resources and attention garnered by some of today’s brightest entrepreneurs are sure to accelerate the process.
While we wait for technology to advance to the level of creating a fully implantable brain enhancement device, the short-term breakthroughs we can expect to see from AI brain augmentation revolve around sensory augmentation.
Using electronic stimuli to trigger the brain into producing artificial sensations has huge potential to improve damaged cognitive functioning. Vision could be triggered in the blind, allowing them to experience sight for the first time. Sensory touch could be stimulated in paralysed limbs. And cognitive functions — such as memory — that tend to degenerate with age could be optimized.
The implications are even larger than repairing cognitive functioning, though. In 2013, Miguel Nicolelis, a neurobiologist at Duke University, successfully led an experiment demonstrating a “direct communication linkage between brains” in rats. This first successful brain-to-brain interface allowed rats to electronically share information on how to respond to stimuli — and the implications for humans could be staggering. Encompassing the ability to share memories and information, such an alteration of our shared consciousness is a more far-flung but nevertheless attainable goal of AI. Imagine all the collective suffering in office conference rooms that could be eliminated if meetings could be directly downloaded to our brains!
The field of AI-based brain augmentation represents the biggest evolutionary step forward in human history. Creating technologies to augment and enhance human intelligence holds the promise of eliminating diseases and providing a higher quality of life through optimizing, well, everything. Just think: The smartphone was just a crazy idea until the iPhone hit the market 10 years ago. Now 44 percent of the world’s population owns a smartphone, with the ability to expand the device’s computing powers exponentially by connecting to the cloud.
Famed futurist and Google executive Ray Kurzweil predicts that by the 2030s nanobots will enter our brains via capillaries, providing a fully immersive virtual reality that connects our neocortex to the cloud, expanding our brain power in much the same way that our smartphones tap into the cloud for outsized computing power.
If Kurzweil’s incredible track record of predicting emerging technologies is any indicator — he’s been right about 86 percent of his predictions since the early ’90s — then we can expect to add a whole new meaning to the phrase “head in the clouds.” We’re living into an exciting age when what was once science fiction is becoming reality, and having our heads in the clouds will no longer mean being lost in daydreams but rather that we’re plugged into the enhanced intelligence of a superbrain.
Andrew DiCosmo is the CTO for Blackspoke, a company that specializes in IT consulting to the Federal Government.