As a sci-fi reader, and writer, I’m fascinated by some technologies that appear to be on the horizon—maybe distantly, but then it’s surprising how fast science fiction tends to become reality in the least expected ways. I didn’t think self-driving cars could be a thing, even at a primitive stage, for another couple of decades at least. The sheer number of problems that needed to be solved—and to be fair, many still do—was astronomical, and they were incredibly hard ones. But self-driving cars are here, now, and it’s like stumbling into a dream.
A few years back I read a story about an experiment with sensory enhancement. The author of the piece mentioned how he tried out a belt with a number of vibration motors spaced evenly all around, and it would vibrate on the side facing magnetic north. As he acclimatized to the device, this one simple additional sense gave him not only an impeccable sense of direction, but an excellent internal map and a constant sense of where home was. And when the device was removed for good, a corresponding feeling of disorientation crashed down.
I couldn’t help but be impressed by how cool that was. A brand new sensory organ, invented and added to the body, was quickly accepted and relied upon by the brain and produced results well beyond the device’s simple function.
Today I read that brain implants are becoming a bigger deal. Right now they’re being used to improve signaling and function in dementia sufferers. It’s an amazing leap forward, but when I read it I was surprised by how little that resembles where I think cybernetics are ultimately headed.
For a long time now I’ve had a thought rumbling around my head, an idea of what an early incarnation of true cybernetics will look like. Picture a tiny chip designed to accept neural inputs and produce outputs. It’s built to last for the lifespan of its host, and not corrode or evoke an immune response. It runs on body heat or an internal fuel like ATP. Its inputs and outputs are electrically or chemically set to encourage natural neurons to bond to it, and they have long filaments so that many neurons can connect.
The chip within is a simple device capable of only basic mathematical functions—maybe even just addition and subtraction.
Building on the lesson of the directional belt, imagine what this device would do when implanted into a human brain. Humans process math on a learned level that has to build up a lot of connections, but this chip could do it with lightning speed. Neurons would connect math processing to and from the chip, greatly accelerating the process. Humans augmented this way might even begin to see math itself differently, taking on far greater abstract challenges than they typically could without it.
But here’s the even weirder part: There’s no reason to believe that this chip’s operation would be strictly limited to math. The brain would simply have this tool available to use however it wanted to. For all we know, the very same device could be instrumental to increased visual or audio acuity. It might end up being used to link associative memories in new and unexpected ways. Simply having a chip that has neuronal connections but does not act like a neuron would be like opening an entirely new dimension of thought.
I’d like to envision a future where far more advanced versions of this tech exist, where the chip is actually a complex device that can do a lot of things, but what’s amazing to me is the potential that even a simple little device would have—or a plethora of such devices, scattered through the brain like chocolate chips. A simple adder might be the brain function equivalent of mitochondria to a cell.
How would those augmented humans perceive the world? How would their intelligence be impacted? We tend to think of advanced intelligence as hampering social skills or empathy, resulting in either a robot or a sociopath—but what if it didn’t? What if such things vastly improved their ability to form bonds with more and more people, and to catch signals they might otherwise ignore so that they became better communicators?
Maybe it’s a lot of wasted speculation; it could be decades, if at all, before we move in that direction. But then, there are self-driving cars.