Ever since I was a child, I had been thinking about death and ways to cheat it, to survive beyond the abyss. People do it with books, content, personas, legacies, children and other ways they want to be remembered. But that was never good enough for me. It’s too passive, you can’t reap the rewards of it, you can’t see how generations interact with your brand/legacy/offspring and you sure hell can’t contribute anymore.
Recently, I’ve been following the latest developments in brain-machine interface, including early research, invasive methods or visions of the future from companies like Neuralink. There are about 20 or so organizations that CB Insights has labeled as working on connecting us to machines.
See, the problem is our own interfaces are 50,000 years old, like our bodies. While they function well and work for the hunter – gatherer, they are becoming more and more stressed – both literally and figuratively – by what we are trying to achieve as a species. Imagine you didn’t have to speak, type or even see, hear or touch, but everything you experience happens directly in your brain.
That’s the future I would like to see unfold in my lifetime and it will lead us to merging with machines, using them as our vessels after our bodies no longer serve us, which is in about 70-80 years now. Sure, with modern medicine we might reach 120-130 years, but it’s hard to imagine more than that at this point.
So come with me on a little journey to find version 1.0 of the first fully digital brain.
Early brain computer interfaces
You can probably use Google to find the early days of brain-computer interfaces, so I won’t go to deep into what’s been done. These guys put together a good history of research done so far on connecting brains to machines. Spoiler, it often involved drills, cables and electrodes attached to the brain. Not fun, also not easy to survive long with that kind of invasion to your skull, due to bacteria and stuff.
I had a chance to talk about this with folks at a Brain Machine Interface event in San Francisco hosted by Berkeley researchers. Even posted on Instagram about it.
Everyone agrees we’re still early, but significant progress has been made. Like this team playing chess with their minds, that was recently documented on Arxiv.
Non invasive BMI like the company Facebook bought
It’s no secret Facebook wants to build a brain-machine interface. They have been working at it since the 2017 F8 announcement. It only seems natural, after years of collecting our most private thoughts and relationships, with our consent, that they would think of the best ways to get more share of our attention and brain. I know some people find this creepy already, but I am intrigued of the possibilities of actually finding likeminded people on Facebook with the help of these interfaces.
Ok, side note, I would be disappointed if you didn’t smile at my likeminded pun and that would make me question your understanding of this article.
But back to Facebook – they reportedly spent over $1B to acquire CTRL-Labs, a startup working on a such interface. Imagine combining the CTRL-kit (their device package) with Facebooks knowledge graph and with Oculus VR. Wouldn’t that be the perfect alternative world, where you think and you become part of it?
I would love to see some early prototypes and examples soon, so we can meet our parents from across the world in VR and not have to fly 7000+ miles every time we want to hang out. Time will tell.
This part of the journey only enhances our experience, and creates new ways to interact. It won’t actually mess with our cognitive abilities. Ok, maybe marginally, as we learn how to interact in the new world. The next part is where things get really exciting.
Brain functional enhancement with external processors/neural nets
This part is more future looking, so there will be less examples, more me trying to conceptualize what’s coming once our brains are truly connected to computers, not just through a wristband, but for real.
There’s already some headway done here, as well. Scientists at Graz University of Technology and UC Irvine have had breakthroughs in restoring motor functions of people with spinal injuries. It’s still early days, but it gives people hope.
Restoring functions after injuries is great and will help loads of people lead normal lives after otherwise life-altering accidents or illnesses. However, the next level is augmentation with other neural nets and external processors. The human brain performance varies significantly due to how you’re brought up, what you eat, how you learn, what you listen to, how chemicals flow inside it. What if you could leverage add-ons, like a new language skill neural net, or a neural net that does advanced algebra for you so you don’t have to go through college to learn it, or code. You would plug in the new net and transfer that exact pattern into your existing cortex or you could carry the add-on around with you and not have to rewrite your own brain. Feels a bit like Johnny Mnemonic, but I believe it’s possible in the next 20-30 years. After all, the brain and the way we think is very probabilistic, eerily similar to how neural nets understand and process information. Theoretically, by enriching your organic level neural nets with these engineered ones, you could jump through knowledge hoops faster.
I recently read a book called The Forever War, where the Taurans share a collective, yet centralized, knowledge server, where they upload and download their collective experiences as a sum of the parts – each tauran. That’s another way one could enhance one’s knowledge – know everything that everyone knows at a given time. It’s kind of having Google inside your brain and not having to use a computer. Imagine the possibilities.
Quantum neural net
While some people argue that we are all operating with quantum concepts in our brains – either consciously or unconsciously – by making scenario analysis and running risk-reward queries, it’s still quite discreet for the vast majority of people and rather slow even for those who can do it while being aware of it. For example, card counting, chess, these are applications of this type of scenario planning.
Imagine you could outsource this analysis to a quantum neural net, to a quantum computer that you can carry around in your pocket or even inside your skull. It could be powered by your bio-electricity and it could help you boost your scenario planning skills by running parallel computing at unthinkable speeds. This would accelerate decision-making, research, trials, investment, dating, virtually all life events.
The requirement for this is twofold – a great interface that’s non-invasive and a functioning quantum computer that adapts to whatever problem your brains throw at it, while still being portable.
Actually, I can also challenge the portability concept, because you can link up to it via LTE/5G/future mobile interfaces and not have to carry it around. It’s a single point of failure and centralizes the system a bit, but we’ll have to make do with that vulnerability for a while, if that’s what it takes.
I did spill over into this next step a little. This evolution of the quantum neural net can also store and reference existing information and experience it has collected throughout its interactions with humans. It’s basically a rudimentary version of a brain companion, which becomes complementary to the human brain.
It won’t be as vast and as versatile at the beginning, but it will be a step up – since it will be able to operate untethered, kind of like your Apple Watch without the phone nearby. This opens the door to creating mini-skill-bots, virtual brains that perform one function of your own brain really well repeatedly and consistently – like the UiPath RPA bots.
I can go a step further and say that a marketplace can be created for these bots and they can be paid in micro-transactions via the blockchain, as they complete tasks for you or for others that need that skill. They could even help you in your own job, create new kinds of jobs and replace meaningless work altogether.
Again, there’s the conversation here if we can host them on a personal device / implant or if they can be cloud-based or blockchain hosted and run decentralized, as a service. That would enable a whole new arbitrage market – where you buy computing and storage, train the mini-brain and sell its services to pay for the initial investment / running costs. Endless possibilities.
Fully digital brain on a server and/or distributed system
We’re now at a point where we’re not only able to communicate back and forth with machines, but we can also create mini-brains that run on prem or in the cloud, kind of like brain microservices, if you know what those are. No worries if you don’t, they have been explained on that page I linked above.
The challenge now is to connect those microservices and form a fully digital brain, that’s capable of operating on its own, without the human creator. It would have to be able to learn and decide on its own, contribute to society or get crushed by the debt incurred by its running costs. This brain, or should I say entity, is the singularity, the moment humanity creates new “life” inside a computer, life that can replicate, contribute, interact, learn, destroy, torture, you get my point.
This is now the point where we have a competitor on our hands – sapiens digitalus. I lost the human part of it for the sake of evolution, but who knows, it might be more human than many of us on this planet today.
Fully digital brain on blockchain systems for immutability
As we are building the world computer on multiple blockchains, it’s only natural to now think about hosting the new digital beings on blockchains, too, so they become immutable. If we host them on servers (prem or cloud), they are still bound by one single system, a single point of failure. While this vulnerability could keep them closer under human control, it could also limit their evolutionary capabilities.
What if we could release them in the blockchain and have them operate on the world super-computers? That way, they cannot be easily destroyed. Sure, you can already see Skynet rising and humans being driven to extinction, but this could also mean we can use them as vessels to preserve human knowledge, advance it and transcend with them.
A step up from here would be for the digital beings to run their own chains, build their own factories, robots and servers, produce their own energy and finally find ways to get out of the solar system to explore other worlds. For them, time does not matter anymore, since there is very little decay compared to the fragile human shell we currently call our body. They could travel for thousands of years at near light speed to jump from galaxy to galaxy and understand more about the universe that we would ever be capable of. In an ideal world, we’re friends with these creatures and they help us grow our collective knowledge. In a bad scenario, we’re extinct or kept in zoos/breeding planets, as a diversity and preservation effort. Wouldn’t that be ironic?
I didn’t want to reveal my goal until the very end — but these digital beings that I mentioned above are likely to be us, the elders. My dream is for technology to advance to the level where we can upload our entire life experience as we approach an age where the body becomes inhabitable and we have to die. This is the equivalent to immortality. Sure, you won’t feel the same feelings, you won’t taste food, you won’t have the same type of experiences, but with tech advancements, you should be able to plug into a network of sensors far superior to what your body could offer and find new ways to feel the world.
Imagine having uploaded your brain before death and being onboard a starship that wanders through the galaxy exploring new life. Or being able to continue to live on, find new goals, connect with new people, see how your offspring and their offspring and their offspring do, talk to them and grow your circle for eons.
Hell, it could even become boring after a while and bring forth the digital turnoff movement, the digital beings/brains that have had enough and want to be shut down. But I doubt that such beings won’t find more purpose in a world that’s changing every day.
In summary, I’m excited about the world and what we can achieve a society, if only we would forget our little bickering and focus on technology advancements, AI, brain interfaces, body repair and restoration and improving the way we interact with our environment.
Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash
4 replies on “The road to a fully digital brain v1.0”
You may find this interesting, I sure did:
I had a very interesting debate about this topic – would the AI be me or not? If you define the self as the sum of your experiences and the potential future decisions you will make based on those experiences, then I don’t see how uploading yourself and transforming into a digital being would alter the self.
We as a species have not changed significantly ever since we started walking up straight and cooking meat. Our bodies and minds are pretty much the same, what changed is the speed at which we process information (which is still shit compared to computers).
So I for one welcome articles like this and the enthusiasm that go with them. One of the moonshots I was researching back when I was actively working on Neveli was the option to replace human parts as we would for any machine we build. The one thing that was impossible at the time to replace was the brain — which in hindsight, is not such a bad thing 🙂
There’s been a lot of research published in the past couple of years which can hint at a Moore Law for brain-machine interfaces. But we have to figure out better ways than cracking the skull open before this can even become a possibility — augmenting and replacing the brain. So yeah, I agree, with current tech we’re far from anything I described here.