While Cyberpunk’s alternate reality has humans breaching the barrier between man and machine relatively soon, reality may not be that far off from the fantasy of Night City. The Royal Society suspects electronic brain implants capable of direct communication with the billions of neurons in your head are just around the corner, with the potential to enhance brain function and revolutionise communication, computing, and medical care.
No one can predict the future, but today’s top scientists at the Royal Society (via The Guardian) – the 358-year-old institute and national Academy of Sciences for the UK – believe there’s enough evidence pointing towards a bionic future sooner rather than later that it’s called for a “national investigation” into the potential avenues for brain implant technology.
Potential uses for brain implants could include telepathy, controlling artificial limbs, curing diseases, enhancing mobility, improving memory, or even offering users the ability to “download” new skills – one can only assume like Neo in the Matrix . And while these represent hopeful aspirations of the future of the tech, the Royal Society expects hands-free control of computers, citing uses in gaming with the potential to expand the tech to millions, to be possible by 2040. Most importantly, it believes medical interfaces in the brain could offer restorative treatments for a wide range of debilitating and degenerative diseases in the next few decades.
There are even brain-controlled games today. Neurable’s Awakening utilises a brain signal-monitoring headband attached to a VR headset that allows players to “pick up” items in-game with the power of thought, and typing or manoeuvring your mouse using your brain alone are also reportedly not far off. Even Ex-Intel exec, Mary Lou Jensen, was once reported as a firm believer in the future of brain-reading tech.
While the future of brain-enhancing technology sees many far-reaching uses for medical conditions, researchers believe the funding and capital generated by gaming could dramatically ramp up development in other areas.
Unsurprisingly Elon Musk, the eternal optimist, is involved in the field too. The entrepreneur founded Neuralink, a neurotechnology company hoping to connect the human brain with external devices and enhance it with AI. The company first aims to combat brain diseases, however. As do many other scientific institutions, both public and government-funded, around the globe.
But the issue also invokes ethical discussions surrounding the use of this technology, and where the line has to be drawn to prevent, what could be, a potential human disaster on a scale like no other before it.
One such question posed by the Royal Society is the role of smart technologies, or even AI, in human agency – when does a person lose their autonomy? Or when is a use for behaviour-bending technology beyond what human ethics deem right and just? The report even delves into the possibility of whether we’re working towards a state without privacy due to government-sanction neural surveillance, and the question of access to these likely sought-after devices and implants across the wealth divide.
It all gets a bit Black Mirror pretty quick. And hence why the subject has been covered extensively by sci-fi writers for decades, and soon enough CD Projekt Red, too. But as the report states, it’s pivotal to have these discussions long ahead of time and often to ensure that whenever the day arrives when these questions are more pressing, the human race can approach them in the best, most respectful way possible.
The report continues to outline the principles and practices required to get UK research up-to-speed, keep neural enhancement and research fair and safe, keep research in the public eye and away from the sole control of big tech, and ensure human ethics are never in jeopardy.
If there’s one sure-fire positive in the report, it’s that the medical uses for neural interfaces have huge potential to be a force for good. And gaming could help us get there.
You can read the full report here: iHuman: blurring the lines between mind and machine, September 2019, The Royal Society, CC BY 4.0 [PDF warning].