Ramez Naam has an interesting view of the future, built around brain implants and mental augmentation. He has written a trilogy of novels about altering the brain’s functioning with a drug that causes telepathy by linking minds together. (BTW, I need to read this trilogy: it sounds terrific.)
He has a blog post up at Charlie Stross’ about how current, crude attempts at brain augmentation could eventually turn into wonderfully-advanced superpowers for humans. It’s a longer version of a piece he did for Tech Crunch. He details some of the amazing things we are doing right now with cochlear implants, bionic eyes, Parkinson’s treatments, transferring thoughts and nerve signals through artificial means. Real verging on cyborg stuff that is cool as hell, especially for those who benefit from restored senses, limbs, and functionality. But Naam goes further, calling for what I like to call the Neural Singularity: technology lets us all upgrade our brains into Cyborg/Jedi Knight/Mentat/Betazed territory.
I’m skeptical that today’s advances will ever develop into what Naam is speculating. I mean, I agree that we could develop and refine the tech, that it is doable. I just think they will never progress in social acceptability beyond terrific medical treatments for severe physical and psychological injuries. And without that widespread acceptance, the advances will never gain the toehold they need to be refined into commercial versions.
Just as the Singularity itself is probably as unlikely as the Christian Rapture (if it’s not simply a geek re-interpretation of it), I don’t think we’ll reach this Neural Singularity. And the 10 reasons why are practical, non-political, and non-religious:
- Complications: brain surgery is not a low-risk enterprise. Are the benefits worth the risks and recovery from elective brain surgery? Let’s see some hands. Anyone? Hmm, this may make it hard to find commercial viability.
- Cancer: brain cancer is usually fatal. Sticking electronics in your brain, which could have some EM, radioactive, or thermal side effects could be a recipe for jacking up cancer risks. Also, simply traumatizing your gray matter may have some terrible consequences. And if you replace your implant(s) as often as you do your phone…
- Rejection: your brain may reject the Xbox iPhone you shove inside it. The immune system has this obsession with finding foreign bodies and attacking them. In your brain, that means swelling! Maybe your enhanced memory chip will help you remember to take the anti-rejection meds you need because of your enhanced memory chip.
- Mental disorders: Enhanced senses, telepathy, telekinesis, reality-altering perceptive differences or even just a Facebook page scrolling in your mind’s may damage your mental health. How will these electronics interact with brain chemistry, and the ebb and flow of hormone-driven changes in how we think? We have no idea. What are the chances that we luck into absolutely no side effects, in a system that is so delicate that low blood sugar can alter mood, decision-making and reaction times? Yes, you may get telepathy, but you also may get a terrific case of schizophrenia, dementia, or soul-sucking depression when you learn your loved ones think you’re a fraud and an asshole.
- Security: If your phone is hacked, you can turn it off and walk away. Not if the phone is in your brain. Not if the software is always on, letting people step into your mind to learn your passwords and sexual fantasies involving prosciutto.
- Hubris: People will push the envelope, screw up, and scare everyone off. One or two literal brainwashing episodes, or the first neural implantee who goes on a killing spree, will be quite a kick in the head to the brain-implant industry.
- Skull: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Because once you do, it’s never quite the same. And we’re finding out all the time that the old grey matter needs as much protection as possible. Cutting through your skull electively is like sawing at the sides of your seatbelt in a race car you just upgraded with nitrous oxide. I think our great-grandchildren will marvel that people didn’t wear helmets when riding inside cars, trucks, and buses. This is the Brain Protection Century.
- Easier alternatives: Rather than risk brain surgery, it seems like all of these advanced capabilities could be obtained with tools one can separate from one’s body. Phone, remote control, etc. Easy, cheap, sharable, and no recovery time. Except we can’t replicate telepathy. Who exactly wants to be on the receiving end of telepathy though?
- Power supply: battery in your brain? Or do you juice up via plugging in? Or by biological means, delivered by the circulatory system? Let’s face it, they’ll be sticking an old watch battery in there because it’s the cheapest. Which leads to…
- Maintenance: Parts wear out, batteries die, hardware needs upgrading and rebooting. If you need a service call on your noggin, that means more brain surgery, so go to the top of this list and work your way back down here again. “Uncle Owen! Aunt Beru has a bad processor!”