Arguably one of the most significant inventions in the history of mankind is the computer.
Inventing the computer has enabled us to do things that are so far out of reach for our most closely related species that we might as well be from another planet. To be fair, you could argue that the invention of the steam engine, and the industrial revolution is what actually propelled us into the intellectual stratosphere, but I’m going to go ahead and draw the line at the computer.
According to computerhistory.org the timeline of computers begins in 1937 when George Stibitz invents a relay using logic to perform complex calculations – which is where the name computer stems from – literally something you use to compute things.
Following Stibitz’ invention the ball starts rolling quickly from there.
Two years later Hewlett-Packard is founded, the enigma is built during WWII, and in 1945 John von Neumann writes a paper on a computer which can use storage.
Fast forward to the 1960’s and computers are starting to make inroads in the military and business. At this point computers start entering the public conversation, and you will no longer be institutionalized for claiming that there is a machine that can do a million calculations at the fraction of the speed that a human can.
By the 70’s the computer starts entering schools, and in 1973 Intel makes a huge breakthrough, when they release the first microprocessor. From then the trajectory of invention becomes steeper and steeper, and in 1977 Apple introduces the Apple II, which introduces the general public to personal computers for the first time.
From here on, computers start branching off, and develop in all kinds of interesting directions. Gaming systems like the Atari and Commodore 64 are introduced, the Macintosh is released in 1984, and all kinds of incredible developments begin to happen.
In addition to simple developments in hardware, companies also start making massive leaps in software and connectivity. The internet gains a greater foothold in most households, and now it is everywhere. Most people consider the internet a necessity rather than a luxury, and it allows us to communicate with anyone, at any time, from almost anywhere in the world.
It is one of the most powerful tools imaginable, and incredible things have been achieved through the use of the internet.
People are better off, new businesses pop up all over the place, old businesses thrive, some can’t make the adjustment to the new times and are replaced by smarter, younger, leaner and faster companies.
Fast forward to today and computers are getting smaller and more portable every day, while at the same time becoming more powerful as their processing power increases.
Computers have undoubtedly changed the world for the better.
However, this is not really news. It’s not like you have read this article so far and been like: “Dude, this guy is so right, I need to go tell all my friends about the computer revolution”. The reason is that it has happened seamlessly, and it is such an integrated part of what we do in our everyday lives that we take it for granted.
So what has been the point of the preceding 500 words you may ask?
The point is that we are on the cusp of another type of breakthrough, that is going to be just as powerful – if not more so – and in order to understand the nuances of what I’m about to tell you, we need to understand some of the technological progress that has gone before, so that we can understand what is about to come next.
Cyborgs or post-humans?
Some of the biggest breakthroughs in the coming years are going to come in human technology. This means areas such as gene-editing technologies like CRISPR, which are already at a fairly advanced level, but also in areas such as human enhancement.
However the single biggest field of scientific discovery and engineering over the coming decade is going to be related to the brain.
The human brain is the most intricate and complicated thing in the known universe.
Recently we’ve cracked a lot of hard scientific nuts like string theory and the Higgs-Bosom particle. As of this writing we’re also cracking some of the last technological frontiers such as AI, sustainable energy and environmental engineering.
When it comes to the brain however we’re currently not even close to figuring out how it works. We have a slight inclination of what might cause Alzheimer’s – clustering of tau and amyloid protein – but no idea what the underlying reason is.
The same goes for paralysis. We know that the reason is that there is no connection between the signals sent from the brain to the limbs, but we have no idea how to mitigate this.
What interesting though, is that we’re committing a lot more resources to researching this than we ever have before, and as a result the rate of scientific discovery is picking up. People are starting companies. Good people. People you want to look into this.
People such as Elon Musk.
Elon has assembled a great team of engineers and scientists at Neuralink to look into how we might cure these conditions. Essentially it’s all about putting machines in our brains, which will allow us to cure diseases and function at a higher level.
These are called Brain-machine interfaces – or BMI’s for short – and right now they are incredibly crude and sad looking.
However, they won’t be for long. Remember – the computer was also very crude and sad-looking, which is why we started with laying that groundwork, because if history is any indicator – and I’m sure it is – then BMI’s won’t be sad and crude forever.
In fact, one of Elon’s ideas is that we will eventually want to put these types of machines into our brains directly, and interact with them as an integrated part of our own minds, and use them in the same way that we use a computer.
This means that we will be able to get much higher output directly from our brains, and we will no longer have to rely on anything outside of ourselves, and we will be able to access everything directly through an uplink to a “brain-net”. This means that we will be able to achieve incredible gains – chiefly in communication.
Per Elon, whenever we communicate the way we do now – by typing on a keyboard – we do so at around 10 bits per second, whereas computers can communicate at a rate of a trillion bits per second. That’s an improvement by a factor of 18. This means that if communication was your only job, which it is for most of us – would mean you could do your job 18 times faster, or get paid 18 times more than you do today. So instead of working eight hours, you could choose to work 44 minutes and still maintain your standard of living. Or you could work for two hours and 13 minutes and triple your income.
Whatever you choose, it’s pretty clear that this technology promises some pretty serious gains.
Add to that the whole Demon out of the box thing regarding AI – also known as the Prometheus myth – meaning that we will eventually build the thing that’s going to kill us. Which might very well be AI.
That is – we are going to suffer the same fate as Prometheus, unless we enter the era of Brain Machine Interfaces and become quote unquote cyborgs.
But all of this raises an important question – namely, will we still be human when we start putting machines in our brains?
Or will we start transitioning into something else, like for instance cyborgs?
If being a cyborg means using technology in our daily lives to a degree where we can no longer live without it, and that it has enhanced our lives in meaningful ways, then yes. We are definitely cyborgs, because we use our phones, computers and other devices so much during the day, and we would never be able to match the output that we get from these if we didn’t use them.
For instance, if people at your company were not allowed to use computers for a year, that company would die a quick death. So we are very reliant on the technology we use, and for good reason. Everyone is so much better off for using it.
Elon argues however that this already makes us cyborgs, which I wholeheartedly disagree with. There is a very clear distinction between using something that is external to you, such as a device or computer, versus having things implanted in your body, which you then interact with directly through your biochemical makeup.
In my mind this is where the line between “Avid user of technology” and “Cyborg” very clearly is.
But the thing is – does it matter?
I’m sure that many people would have objections to putting foreign objects in their bodies, but I’m also sure that many people would want to improve their performance by a factor of 18. I’m also fairly sure that people who are paralyzed would want to give almost anything to be able to regain some of the their mobility back.
If I or one of my loved ones had some terrible brain-disease such as Alzheimer’s I wouldn’t hesitate to go with a BMI solution if the potential reward was a cure for this terrible disease.
Adoption of BMI’s
At the end of the day I think BMI’s is going to go the route of most modern technologies which have severely impacted mankind. In the beginning it is going to be something that takes place in research labs around the world, and it’s going to be clunky and ugly, and the use for the technology might seem very limited at first.
Soon enough though, people will start adopting it, and it will look less and less scary, and people will start thinking of it in terms where they start looking at the benefits, and all the good it can do them, instead of all the risks inherent in any new technology.
Furthermore, we’re also going to see a decline in the price, which will further increase the adoption rate. At first BMI’s are going to be almost unaffordable and only used in the foremost research centers, and only used in the most severe medical cases, but soon enough the price will go down. We will find better ways of utilizing the technology, and we will find cheaper ways to build it.
More application will pop up, and all of the sudden BMI’s start creeping into popular culture, and everyday language, and before too long, we will start seeing more and more people adopting the idea, and seeing the use for it in their own everyday life, and the good it can do for them, and how much better their life will be with this technology.
Then first movers will start pursuing this technology, and we will probably look at them like they’re a bit crazy at first, but then more and more people get convinced that this is a good thing, and soon enough more and more people will start to be in favor in BMI’s and soon enough there will be critical mass.
And like social media, which is another recent example of something where mass adoption happened according to this pattern, you will get left behind if you don’t use it.
See the thing about this technology is that it’s just so incredibly powerful, and the potential it has to transform our lives in every single area is enormous.
I believe this is the biggest leap of progress that we as humans have ever experienced, and I think that the timeline for this kind of event is shorter than we think.
Take a look at this delightfully simple chart of technological progress
We all agree that since the industrial revolution we have seen incredible leaps forward in standards of living, expected age and overall quality of life.
We work less, feel better and enjoy ourselves more than we ever have before, because we have created technology which has allowed us to do so.
BMI’s is just such a technology.
And it’s going to make the progress that we have made in the last 300 years look like child’s play.
In Ramez Naan’s delightful science fiction novels Nexus, Crux and Apex he toys with the idea of what a future in which humans have achieved this kind of technology and it’s absolutely mind-boggling. He makes the argument that people who are living with this kind of technology are in fact no longer humans, in the same way that Neanderthals are not humans. They’re related, but they are a different species.
Naan argues that the technology of Brain Machine Interfaces is so powerful that they will make humans transition from regular humans to what he calls post-humans.
Taking into consideration everything we’ve outlined so far, I’m inclined to agree with him.
Now however, we get to the really meaty part of the article, namely what does a future where every person has more brainpower at their disposal by a factor of 18 look like? Hang in there, because this is where the ride gets intense, but it’s also where we can play around with some really interesting ideas.
And if what I’m about to say is anywhere close to right, then the future is going to be fucking awesome.
What will a future with BMI’s look like?
Naturally, any technology that promises to increase humanity’s rate of productivity with a factor of 18 are going to have profound impacts on society, but it can be hard to wrap our heads around what exactly that future is going to look like.
Nonetheless, let’s give it a shot.
First of all – as we talked about, BMI’s are going to be part of us. They are going to be implanted in some ways, thus becoming part of who we are as people. Whether this is through nano-bots which are ingested and autonomously find their way to the brain, or another type of technology entirely remains to be seen.
It’s worth pointing out here that innovation is notoriously difficult to speculate about, because the progress itself remains to be seen.
After all, I doubt people at the time of this
Would have ever thought of something like this
However, the fact of the matter remains, namely that Brain Machine Interfaces are going to be a part of us, and it means that we are all going to be connected.
In the same way that we are connected today by the internet, just without the need for a device. This naturally begs the question – just as it does today – what about the people who aren’t connected?
Well, they miss out.
What we can hope for – and work towards – is to make this an inclusive technology, meaning that the power of it is so great that we need every human being to be connected.
At any rate we will all be connected, and this might sound terrifying and like a very worker-bee type of mentality, where everyone is just part of a larger group, but it won’t be. It will nurture individuality, self-expression and self-actualization just as the internet does.
In fact, it might be worth noting, that with this type of tech we move further up the Maslowian hierarchy of needs.
It looks like this
As you can see self-actualization is the highest step in the pyramid, and BMI’s will allow a lot of humanity to move up there permanently – just as the internet has done for so many people.
We talked about earlier how communication can get increased massively, simply due to the fact that when everyone is connected to the same network, then communication can flow smoothly, effortlessly and seamlessly. What’s really interesting though, is that whenever we communicate something it is by its very nature a poor, and bastardized representation of whatever concept or experience we’re trying to experience.
In Ramez Naan’s novels he displays communication as something that takes place between people in a way that is much more similar to the way we communicate with ourselves, namely through sounds, images and other impressions. This means that we can represent things a lot more accurately – something that makes learning a whole lot easier. This also means that we can have shared experiences on a whole other level.
Think for instance if you went to visit the Swiss alps with your significant other, and instead of just enjoying the beauty and magnificence of it together, you’d share each other’s actual experience, meaning that you’d feel what the other person is feeling, and be able to know how they represented that experience to themselves.
It’s a bit spacy, and hard to wrap our heads around, I know – but stick with me, because things are only going to get more interesting.
Because we’d be able to work on a network where everyone is literally connected we’d be able to collaborate more powerfully across groups. Science would further advance the rate of progress, because scientists would be able to collaborate seamlessly, and share concepts with each other in ways that are profoundly different from the way we work today. This would not only be the case for science, but also in other disciplines such as music, literature, business and politics among many others.
In fact every field in the world will benefit intensely from this technology. This means that we need to recognize that it will also affect bad people, as has been the case with every piece of technology since the dawn of mankind. However – as has always been the case when it comes to technology – the good that can be achieved with this kind of tech far far far outweighs anything bad that could be done by any bad people.
Another thing that I found incredibly cool in the Nexus series is how the BMI tech is described as something where applications are developed, and so people can use it in different ways.
For example people can use it to still their nerves under pressure, learn how to study better or even learn Kung-Fu. In a sense, think of Neo from The Matrix, and how he just downloads different skills.
Very similar to that.
What I find the most mind-boggling is that the first time I saw the Matrix, I thought to myself “This is so unreal”. I couldn’t even fathom that it could become a thing in the future – whereas now, there are actually people in the real world – real smart people – who are working their butts off to make this a reality.
Oh, and they’re backed by one of the coolest and richest dudes to walk on the surface of the planet, in Elon Musk.
I remember Elon saying in an interview, that one of the reasons that he started this company was obviously because he wanted to help cure brain-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, but also due to his fear of A.I.
Musk has said on multiple occasions how much he thinks about A.I. and how we might be unleashing the demon as a species, by inventing artificial intelligence.
What he hopes to accomplish with this company is not only to cure brain-related diseases then, but also to move humanity to a place where we no longer need to worry about A.I., because we as a species have managed to enhance our own mental powers so much that we no longer require A.I.
If this is the case, then we will have moved so far beyond basic humanity, so as to be almost incomparable. In fact, we will no longer be humans, but post-humans.
This means, that the day we make Brain Machine Interfaces a reality is the day we become another species.