I remember when I was young the awe of lay people when confronted with computers. A machine that could calculate with blazing fast precision was something out of this world. We used to call them, at least in Italian, Electronic Brains. And some scientists were forecasting a time when this electronic brains indeed would match our reasoning capabilities and even surpass them. Some are seeing this as happening right now and most agree that in the next decade we will have computers passing the Turing test, becoming indistinguishable from humans in terms of reasoning.
But now there is an unexpected twist to this vision of an electronic brain.
Brain electrode to interface neurons with a computer
MIT’s Technology Review picks up the discussion on brain coprocessors, computers that can be associated with our brain to increase its performances and provides arguments for its feasibility and the need for some standard architecture that can foster this goal.
The progress in bioengineering is making it possible to probe the brain with a resolution of a few neurons and it is expected we will be able to interact with a single neuron. Even if this will not be viable in a short time, the plasticity of our brain can provide turn-around to this lack of resolution and make it possible to intercept signals coming from external probes and process them. Couple this with the increasing capability to analyze what is going inside our skull and you get a human computer interface at the processing level.
This is what scientists have start to address as a brain coprocessor, a computer connected to our brain that can augment its processing capabilities. Clearly this would open up science fiction scenarios, such as the ones depicted by Douglas Hofstadter in “The Minds’ I” (a must read book on the philosophy of mind).
We are not there yet, or are we?
In fact, and this is what the authors discuss in the paper, if we just relax the requirement to have a physical interconnection between a physical brain and a computer we are already getting very close to this “brain coprocessor”. IT evolution can get us even closer in just a few years.
The capabilities to appreciate the context by a computer and to process information about a person, his experiences, make possible to have sophisticated interactions.
In reality we are getting to the point that these interactions become part of our decision process and effectively we act as if we have a brain coprocessor plugged in. Actually, I feel easier with this sort of loose connectivity than thinking of having a hard connection between my brain and a computer.
I guess that as long as the brain coprocessor lives in a shade and I do not feel like I am basing my decision on that I would feel ok. This, by the way, is already happening for airplane pilots that land a plane on a foggy runway using computer eyes to tale decisions. This happens seamlessly and most pilots would tell you that they are landing the plane without perceiving any intrusion from the computer(s). It will happen soon to us, driving cars with computer assisted driving and enhanced vision (projecting obstacles on the windshield).
On the other hand, the more transparent this brain coprocessor is going to be the more issues will emerge. Who’s going to take responsibility if something goes wrong? Can we tell “not my fault, it was my brain coprocessor that went awry!”?
I am sure we are moving in this direction as we are transforming our ambient into an aware entity and as a consequence we will adapt subtly our behavior to this new dimension. It is a new world with unexpected twists awaiting for us.