By Steven Dube
There is no doubt that computers have changed almost every facet of our modern existence as humans. In a very short time we have moved from a completely analog environment regarding communications and interactions to the present, where almost everything has a digital equivalent or conversion to a digital output. Our relationship with the world has been fundamentally changed. This article will explain some of these changes and identify what is on the horizon in human computer integration
I grew up in the mid-’80s, around the time when we saw the first household computers. I remember the Commodore 64, TRS-180, the first IBMs and Apple IIe. While these computers were novel, they were still quite limited in scope: word processing, databases and simple text-driven games. Despite the limited functionality, early computers hinted at the promise of the future. A revolution of the fundamental human condition and the desire for technology hardwired in all of us was about to be fast-tracked. Enter the GUI.
The Graphical User Interface, or GUI, allowed for greater interaction with the computer for the common user. No longer did you have to have to be a whiz at the command line using text-based commands to perform tasks with a computer. The GUI allowed for mainstream computer use, creating a functional tool for every individual to use without a steep learning curve.
This is where we have been for about the last 30 years. As with all human evolvement and technological advancement, in the last decade or so, we have started to see a new level of human-computer interaction.
There are several next-level integration systems being developed. There is augmented reality and virtual reality, using cameras and dedicated hardware interfaces to interact with digital media. Brain-machine interfaces, or BMIs, tap even deeper into human-computer integration, essentially making the hardware interface disappear.
BMIs allows for controlling computers and machines with your mind, akin to science-fiction reality. Yet they are not exactly new science. The first research began in the 1970s at the University of California, Los Angeles, focusing on neuroprosthetics and applications that aim to restore damaged hearing, sight and movement. The results of this research have already yielded some great discoveries, but we are just starting to see the emergence of BMIs that are very capable. These devices take advantage of current computing power and emerging technologies.
Elon Musk has recently announced the development of a BMI known as Neuralink. This technology uses a needle to implant a rolled-up nano-sized mesh covered with electrodes. These unravel and attach to your skull, with the ability to convert brain impulses into useful signals. Called Neuralace, initially these devices would focus on brain injuries, with the ultimate goal of allowing users to control and access information. According to Elon Musk, “Without the creation of the Neuralace technology, humans will be unable to keep pace with the rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence.” He compared humans without this technology to the intellectual equivalent of the house cat.
Another promising emerging technology is Openwater. Openwater is a San Francisco-based startup focused on devising a new generation of imaging technologies featuring high resolution and low costs, enabling medical diagnoses and treatments — and a new era of affordable brain-to-computer communication. This company was founded by the highly credentialed Dr. Mary Lou Jepsen, who has worked as an engineering executive at Facebook, Oculus, Google and Intel, and been a professor at MIT and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. In addition, she has invented over 200 published or issued patents, and has been recognized with many awards, notably appearing in TIME magazine’s influential “Time 100” and CNN’s Top 10 Thinkers.
Dr. Jepsen’s approach to BMIs uses much less invasive techniques than Neuralace to connect the human brain to a computer interface: light — near-infrared light, to be exact. This approach is based on the premise that light can penetrate the body non-invasively, just like the old campfire trick when you press a bright flashlight against your hand you can see an outline of the bones in your fingers. Openwater systems scan the brain with infrared light using specialized LCD detectors and the ability to focus this light down to the current 100 micron resolution, or the thickness of a human hair. Further advancements in these technologies would increase resolutions to detect individual neurons, which are around 6 microns wide.
This technology would allow us to examine the brain’s neurons and possess information in real time by using a change in the refraction of the neuron to process data. When a neuron is in use, its structure roughens, changing how light is reflected. As these systems develop, there are many potential benefits, such as doing surgery without cutting, removing plaque from clogged arteries and delivering localized treatments. The high-resolution imagery would effectively replace expensive MRIs with a device worn on the head like a ski cap.
At the extreme end of this technology, some believe we can change neuron states, ideas, and memories. Delivering information directly to a user will be one of the few things this incredible emerging technology will be able to do. We are already cyborgs in a sense. We are connected to our smartphones, limited only by the bandwidth of the data we can transmit
With this technology you could dump images from your memory and receive new images and information almost instantaneously. You could think of a new object and immediately create it with a 3D printer. Imagine creating art and music, or even brainstorming new environmental solutions. Wielded correctly, we could address global problems and create incredible solutions.
While incredible advances in AI are happening every day, we really need to be talking about IA, or Intelligence Amplification. Instead of the fear of losing our jobs to AI, we must empower humans with the ability to solve some of the most difficult problems facing our society today. Using AI and technologies like the ones examined in this paper to make ourselves smarter and more creative, we can transform healthcare, education, the environment, space exploration, communication and more… by just thinking about it.
Steven Dube is a member of the Information Technology Senior Capstone Project course and is already working in the tech sector. In his spare time he likes hanging out with family, making art and music, and creating. You can see more of his work at http://www.stevendube.com