Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Will a Computer “Symbiote” be Implanted in Future Human Brains?

The Daily Galaxy

Will future humans have computers implanted in their brains? Researchers are developing a neural implant that can think independently—just like the human brain does. Creepy? Yeah. Cool? Definitely. Scientists at the University of Florida aren’t just creating a neural implant that can translate human brain signals, but one that can act independently to increase its efficiency and synergy with the brain as it learns new things.

"In the grand scheme of brain-machine interfaces, this is a complete paradigm change," said Justin C. Sanchez, Ph.D., a UF assistant professor of pediatric neurology and the study's lead author. "This idea opens up all kinds of possibilities for how we interact with devices. It's not just about giving instructions but about those devices assisting us in a common goal. You know the goal, the computer knows the goal and you work together to solve the task."

These “brain computers” are programmed with complex algorithms that can interpret thoughts. But the algorithms used in current brain-machine interfaces are incapable of adapting to change, Sanchez explains. They are order-takers, but not adaptive problem-solvers.

"The status quo of brain-machine interfaces that are out there have static and fixed decoding algorithms, which assume a person thinks one way for all time," he said. "We learn throughout our lives and come into different scenarios, so you need to develop a paradigm that allows interaction and growth."

Sanchez and his colleagues tested out evolving brain-machine interface using rats.

The rats’ brains were fitted with tiny electrodes that capture thought signals. Three rats were taught how to move a robotic arm toward a target using just their thoughts. Each time they succeeded, the rats were rewarded.

The computer, on the other hand, was programmed to earn as many points as possible by figuring out how to help the rat. The closer a rat moved the arm to the target, the more points the computer received, which helped the computer determine which brain signals lead to the most rewards. The computer then knew how to streamline the process to make it more efficient and ultimately easier for the rats.

The researchers made things progressively more difficult for the rats by requiring them to hit targets that were placed farther and farther away. However, the symbiotic relationship between the computer and the rats allowed the rats to complete tasks more efficiently each time despite the increasing difficulty.

So how does this all apply to humans? Well, there’s not a lot of legitimate funds available out there to turn humans into superhuman cyborgs “just for fun” (well, other than DARPA funding, of course), so initially the technology will be developed for therapeutic applications, such as allowing paraplegics victims to control their own limbs again and so forth.

However, there is a whole slew of other fantastic sci-fi inspired applications that are theoretically possible with this type of computer “symbiote” implants. For example, how would you like to be able to calculate enormous equations in your own head? You’d just think about what you wanted calculated and your neural implant would do the work for you instantaneously. Or how would you like the entire library of congress stored neatly in your brain where you can access any kind of information you’d ever want instantly just by thinking about. You wonder to yourself, “When was Abraham Lincoln born?” Your symbiote could then theoretically feed the correct answer back to you in what felt as natural as your own thoughts.

Mental work like creating company reports and term papers would become ridiculously easy. It’d be better than having a photographic memory, but of course with a neural implant you could theoretically have one of those too! Your implant could easily store an image of everything you’ve ever looked at, especially the way micro data storing technology is developing.

Neural implants would also allow people to control heavy machinery (or gigantic evil robots) with nothing but their thoughts remotely—perhaps even halfway around the world. However, giving a “thinking” computer a portion of the steering wheel, could conceivably raise a whole new class of questions about who’s really in charge. Up until now, brain-machine interfaces have always been designed as a one-way conversation between the brain and a computer. The brain gives the instructions and the computer merely follows commands. But now, according to findings published this month online in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers journal IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, the system UF engineers created gives the computer a say in that conversation, as well.

Just imagine the autoworker in court convincingly replacing the outdated “devil made me do it” argument with “my neural implant made me do it…I mean, sure I thought about crushing my boss with that 2 ton metallic robot arm, but I had no idea my neural implant would take me so seriously.”

Marvel Comics first coined the term symbiote to denote a sentient organism that bonds with other organisms in a co-captain style of control where both organisms think synergistically—although the symbiote always seems to have the upper hand. In sci-fi, symbiotes have incredible adaptive attributes and quickly adapt to and enhance the abilities of the human they bond to while granting them a range of other incredible powers to boot. Traditional comic book symbiotes have been biological extraterrestrial aliens, but the real life expression of symbiotes could end up being advanced computer systems—hopefully programmed without the volatile and murderous urges that defined their fictional counterparts. In theory, a computer-brain interface could allow people to download a program that makes them think more creatively. You could download a movie you’ve been wanting to watch and just relax anywhere while it plays out in your head.

The sci-fi inspired implications are staggering. Will it give humans ESP using blue tooth technology to “beam” thoughts directly from one implant to another? What if you could somehow remotely override someone else’s neural computer? In theory you could control their physical actions and even their words. Or what if neural implants become commonplace enhancements for those who can afford it, effectively separating the human race into two major classes—superhuman vs the non-enhanced?

The questions and implications are endless, and while they are all likely far away possibilities, we now know its not just fiction. In reality, technological advancements often lead to real changes that are much stranger that fiction. The eventual melding of the human mind with advanced computer technology would revolutionize the world ways that we cannot even possibly imagine.

Posted by Rebecca Sato