Trending Topics of 2061 (Part 2)

This article describes my personal vision of the top three hot topics in technology in 50 years. If part one of the article focused on nanotech and the two development branches for it (electronic and biological), this part will focus on a particular high-impact application of nano-tech: neural interfaces.
Neural interfaces (i.e. brain computer interfaces) are the destination of our technological journey which brings people and machines closer together. Computers were initially programmed by manually rewiring components, then by keyboard and mouse and nowadays by touch and gesture. However, the interface begins to be more and more the bottleneck in man-computer processing. In other words, people think faster and computers tend to work faster than you can type or touch.

In the diagram below, I’ve listed the basic action the human mind and the computer need to perform when a user thinks of looking up the entity that performs a “meow-meow” action.

From thinking about "meow-meow" to looking up cats on Google

(click to enlarge)

The colors are meant to both link actions on the vertical and to highlight how much time they take (warm color = takes a lot of time).

As you can see, actually moving your fingers over the keyboard/touchscreen takes up the most time. Also (subconsciously) processing how to move the fingers is quite a lengthy process.

Be that as it may, the purpose of neural interfaces is to remove the need to think about moving the fingers and to actually move them and send the information directly to the machine via a much faster interface. This would make all querying and commanding processes a lot faster, by bringing them from a several seconds to under a second. It may not seem like a significant gain, but it builds up over a lot of commands.

Of course, this is not the only advantage. The other one would be being able to convey more information directly to the system. In the example above, consider you weren’t looking for cats, but for cute, white cats with black spots. Typing this would take a lot longer and it probably wouldn’t yield all the relevant results – because the more complex an idea is the more ways there are to express it (in natural language).

The sum it up, the point of neural interfaces is to make the communication process between humans and machines faster, more complete, more reliable. Of course, the same way even the communication process between humans and humans would benefit from the same advantages (if language is by-passed).

I know, I know – this whole thing sounds kind of like science fiction. But there is one piece of the puzzle, one technology needed in order to ignite the development in neural interfaces.

And that is – pam pam – nanotechnolgy.

Nanotechnology is the tool needed to physically build these interfaces between biological and digital. These interfaces would be extremely complex in structure, very fine and very small (think nano). With present technology, we have no way to build such fine connections, with complex structures to fit neural pathways. But hopefully with the help of nano-bots, this will start being possible in 25-30 years.

Once the hardware is available (even in a crude form), data will be collected and software will emerge. Unlike most fields, the problems posed by neural interfaces are more on hardware than on software.

Moreover, some crude experiments already exist, such as Lateral Geniculate Nucleus Cat Vision – allowing the transmission of a video feed from the cat brain. Also, similar projects exist for capturing the vision feeds of rats and insects. But all of these attempts are more or less like attempting brain surgery with slaughterhouse equipment. And, just to emphasize, the equipment is hardware.

Needless to say, there are countless ethical considerations to these future development, including consent, privacy, mind control, challenging our very sense of self and identity. This will probably be the 2060 equivalent of web privacy concerns.

The applications however are endless:

  • Neuroprosthetics
  • Artificial telepathy
  • Shared empathy
  • (hang on for this one) The World Wide Mind

However, until this science fiction even begins to approach reality, we need to develop nano-bots able to build complex, microscopic structures – such as neural pathways. Nanotech alone will take another 25 years to reach this point, so I expect the first generation of neural interface to emerge 30-35 years from now.

Hang on for part 3 of the series.

Until then, I’m looking forward to your thoughts, as always.

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