Last month, researchers created an electronic link between the brains of two rats separated by thousands of miles. This was just another reminder that technology will one day make us telepaths. But how far will this transformation go? And how long will it take before humans evolve into a fully-fledged hive mind? We spoke to the experts to find out.
I spoke to three different experts, all of whom have given this subject considerable thought: Kevin Warwick, a British scientist and professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading; Ramez Naam, an American futurist and author of NEXUS (a scifi novel addressing this topic); and Anders Sandberg, a Swedish neuroscientist from the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.
They all told me that the possibility of a telepathic noosphere is very real — and it’s closer to reality than we might think. And not surprisingly, this would change the very fabric of the human condition.
My first question to the group had to do with the technological requirements. How is it, exactly, that we’re going to connect our minds over the Internet, or some future manifestation of it?
“I really think we have sufficient hardware available now — tools like Braingate,” says Warwick. “But we have a lot to learn with regard to how much the brain can adapt, just how many implants would be required, and where they would need to be positioned.”
Naam agrees that we’re largely on our way. He says we already have the basics of sending some sorts of information in and out of the brain. In humans, we’ve done it with video, audio, and motor control. In principle, nothing prevents us from sending that data back and forth between people.
“Practically speaking, though, there are some big things we have to do,” he tells io9. “First, we have to increase the bandwidth. The most sophisticated systems we have right now use about 100 electrodes, while the brain has more than 100 billion neurons. If you want to get good fidelity on the stuff you’re beaming back and forth between people, you’re going to want to get on the order of millions of electrodes.”
Naam says we can build the electronics for that easily, but building it in such a way that the brain accepts it is a major challenge.
The second hurdle, he says, is going beyond sensory and motor control.
“If you want to beam speech between people, you can probably tap into that with some extensions of what we’ve already been doing, though it will certainly involve researchers specifically working on decoding that kind of data,” he says. “But if you want to go beyond sending speech and get into full blown sharing of experiences, emotions, memories, or even skills (a la The Matrix), then you’re wandering into unknown territory.”
Indeed, Sandberg says that picking up and translating brain signals will be a tricky matter.
“EEG sensors have lousy resolution — we get an average of millions of neurons, plus electrical noise from muscles and the surroundings,” he says. “Subvocalisation and detecting muscle twitches is easier to do, although they will still be fairly noisy. Internal brain electrodes exist and can get a lot of data from a small region, but this of course requires brain surgery. I am having great hopes for optogenetics and nanofibers for making kinder, gentler implants that are less risky to insert and easier on their tissue surroundings.”
The real problem, he says, is translating signals in a sensible way. “Your brain representation of the concept “mountain” is different from mine, the result not just of different experiences, but also on account of my different neurons. So, if I wanted to activate the mountain concept, I would need to activate a disperse, perhaps very complex network across your brain,” he tells io9. “That would require some translation that figured out that I wanted to suggest a mountain, and found which pattern is your mountain.”
Sandberg says we normally “cheat” by learning a convenient code called language, where all the mapping between the code and our neural activations is learned as we grow. We can, of course, learn new codes as adults, and this is rarely a problem — adults already master things like Morse code, SMS abbreviations, or subtle signs of gesture and style. Sandberg points to the recent experiments by Nicolelis connecting brains directly, research which shows that it might be possible to get rodents to learn neural codes. But he says this learning is cumbersome, and we should be able to come up with something simpler.
One way is to boost learning. Some research shows that amphetamine and presumably other learning stimulants can speed up language learning. Recent work on the Nogo Receptor suggests that brain plasticity can be turned on and off. “So maybe we can use this to learn quickly,” says Sandberg.
Another way is to have software do the translation. It is not hard to imagine machine learning to figure out what neural codes or mumbled keywords correspond to which signal — but setting up the training so that users find it acceptably fast is another matter.
“So my guess is that if pairs of people really wanted to ‘get to know each other’ and devoted a lot of time and effort, they could likely learn signals and build translation protocols that would allow a lot of ‘telepathic’ communication — but it would be very specific to them, like the ‘internal language’ some couples have,” says Sandberg. “For the weaker social links, where we do not want to spend months learning how to speak to each other, we would rely on automatically translated signals. A lot of it would be standard things like voice and text, but one could imagine adding supporting ‘subtitles’ showing graphics or activating some neural assemblies.”
In terms of the communications backbone, Sandberg believes it’s largely in place, but it will likely have to be extended much further.
“The theoretical bandwidth limitations of even a wireless Internet are far, far beyond the bandwidth limitations of our brains — tens of terabits per second,” he told me, “and there are orbital angular momentum methods that might get far more.”
Take the corpus callosum, for example. It has around 250 million axons, and even at the maximal neural firing rate of just 25 gigabits, that should be enough to keep the hemispheres connected such that we feel we are a single mind.
As for the interface, Warwick says we should stick to implanted multi-electrode arrays. These may someday become wireless, but they’ll have to remain wired until we learn more about the process. Like Sandberg, he adds that we’ll also need to develop adaptive software interfacing.
Naam envisions something laced throughout the brain, coupled with some device that could be worn on the person’s body.
“For the first part, you can imagine a mesh of nano-scale sensors either inserted through a tiny hole in the skull, or somehow through the brain’s blood vessels. In Nexus I imagined a variant on this — tiny nano-particles that are small enough that they can be swallowed and will then cross the blood-brain barrier and find their way to neurons in the brain.”
Realistically, Naam says that whatever we insert in the brain is going to be pretty low energy consumption. The implant, or mesh, or nano-particles could communicate wirelessly, but to boost their signal — and to provide them power — scientists will have to pair them with something the person wears, like a cap, a pair of glasses, a headband — anything that can be worn very near the brain so it can pick up those weak signals and boost them, including signals from the outside world that will be channeled into the brain.
Warwick believes that the technologies required to build an early version of the telepathic noosphere are largely in place. All that’s required, he says, is “money on the table” and the proper ethical approval.
Sandberg concurs, saying that we’re already doing it with cellphones. He points to the work of Charles Stross, who suggests that the next generation will never have to be alone, get lost, or forget anything.
“As soon as people have persistent wearable systems that can pick up their speech, I think we can do a crude version,” says Sandberg. “Having a system that’s on all the time will allow us to get a lot of data — and it better be unobtrusive. I would not be surprised to see experiments with Google Glasses before the end of the year, but we’ll probably end up saying it’s just a fancy way of using cellphones.”
At the same time, Sandberg suspects that “real” neural interfacing will take a while, since it needs to be safe, convenient, and have a killer app worth doing. It will also have to compete with existing communications systems and their apps.
Similarly, Naam says we could build a telepathic network in a few years, but with “very, very, low fidelity.” But that low fidelity, he says, would be considerably worse than the quality we get by using phones — or even text or IM. “I doubt anyone who’s currently healthy would want to use it.”
But for a really stable, high bandwidth system in and out of the brain, that could take upwards of 15 to 20 years, which Naam concedes is optimistic.
“In any case, it’s not a huge priority,” he says. “And it’s not one where we’re willing to cut corners today. It’s firmly in the medical sphere, and the first rule there is ‘do no harm’. That means that science is done extremely cautiously, with the priority overwhelmingly — and appropriately — being not to harm the human subject.”
I asked Sandberg how the telepathic noosphere will disrupt the various way humans engage in work and social relations.
“Any enhancement of communication ability is a big deal,” he responded. “We humans are dominant because we are so good at communication and coordination, and any improvement would likely boost that. Just consider flash mobs or how online ARG communities do things that seem nearly supernatural.”
Cell phones, he says, made our schedules flexible in time and space, allowing us to coordinate where to meet on the fly. He says we’re also adding various non-human services like apps and Siri-like agents. “Our communications systems are allowing us to interact not just with each other but with various artificial agents,” he says. Messages can be stored, translated and integrated with other messages.
“If we become telepathic, it means we will have ways of doing the same with concepts, ideas and sensory signals,” says Sandberg. “It is hard to predict just what this will be used for since there are so few limitations. But just consider the possibility of getting instruction and skills via augmented reality and well designed sensory/motor interfaces. A team might help a member perform actions while ‘looking over her shoulder’, as if she knew all they knew. And if the system is general enough, it means that you could in principle get help from any skilled person anywhere in the world.”
In response to the same question, Naam noted that communication boosts can accelerate technical innovation, but more importantly, they can also accelerate the spread of any kind of idea. “And that can be hugely disruptive,” he says.
But in terms of the possibilities, Naam says the sky’s the limit.
“With all of those components, you can imagine people doing all sorts of things with such an interface. You could play games together. You could enter virtual worlds together,” he says. “Designers or architects or artists could imagine designs and share them mentally with others. You could work together on any type of project where you can see or hear what you’re doing. And of course, sex has driven a lot of information technologies forward — with sight, sound, touch, and motor control, you could imagine new forms of virtual sex or virtual pornography.”
Warwick imagines communication in the broadest sense, including the technically-enabled telepathic transmission of feelings, thoughts, ideas, and emotions. “I also think this communication will be far richer when compared to the present pathetic way in which humans communicate.” He suspects that visual information may eventually be possible, but that will take some time to develop. He even imagines the sharing of memories. That may be possible, he says, “but maybe not in my lifetime.”
Put all this together, says Warwick, and “the body becomes redundant.” Moreover, when connected in this way “we will be able to understand each other much more.”
We also talked about the potential risks.
“There’s the risk of bugs in hardware or software,” says Naam. “There’s the risk of malware or viruses that infect this. There’s the risk of hackers being able to break into the implants in your head. We’ve already seen hackers demonstrate that they can remotely take over pacemakers and insulin pumps. The same risks exist here.”
But the big societal risk, says Naam, stems entirely from the question of who controls this technology.
“That’s the central question I ask in Nexus,” he says. “If we all have brain implants, you can imagine it driving a very bottom’s up world — another Renaissance, a world where people are free and creating and sharing more new ideas all the time. Or you can imagine it driving a world like that of 1984, where central authorities are the ones in control, and they’re the ones using these direct brain technologies to monitor people, to keep people in line, or even to manipulate people into being who they’re supposed to be. That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Warwick, on the other hand, told me that the “biggest risk is that some idiot — probably a politician or business person — may stop it from going ahead.” He suspects it will lead to a digital divide between those who have and those who do not, but that it’s a natural progression very much in line with evolution to date.
In response to the question of privacy, Sandberg quipped, “Privacy? What privacy?”
Our lives, he says, will reside in the cloud, and on servers owned by various companies that also sell results from them to other organizations.
“Even if you do not use telepathy-like systems, your behaviour and knowledge can likely be inferred from the rich data everybody else provides,” he says. “And the potential for manipulation, surveillance and propaganda are endless.”
Without a doubt, the telepathic noosphere will alter the human condition in ways we cannot even begin to imagine. The Noosphere will be an extension of our minds. And as David Chalmers and Andy Clark have noted, we should still regard external mental processes as being genuine even though they’re technically happening outside our skulls. Consequently, as Sandberg told me, our devices and “cloud exoselves” will truly be extensions of our minds.
“Potentially very enhancing extensions,” he says, “although unlikely to have much volition of their own.”
Sandberg argues that we shouldn’t want our exoselves to be too independent, since they’re likely to make mistakes in our name. “We will always want to have veto power, a bit like how the conscious level of our minds has veto on motor actions being planned,” he says.
Veto power over our cloud exoselves? The future will be a very strange place, indeed.
Top image: agsandrew/Shutterstock, Nicolesis lab.