Monday, 25 November 2019

Prosthetics of the Brain


Posted by Emile Wolfaardt

Some creatures are able to regrow lost limbs (like crayfish, salamanders, starfish and some spiders). As humans, we are not as advanced in that department. But we can create such limbs – conventional prosthetics – artificial limbs or organs designed to provide (some) return of function. Some replacements, like glass eyes, don’t even provide that – they don’t see better, they simply look better. But a new wave of smart prosthetics is busy changing all that.

Bionic eyes are surgically implanted, and connect with retina neurons, recreating the transduction of light information back to the brain – so the brain can once again ‘see’. Bionic lenses provide augmented abilities, enabling eyes to see three times better than ‘perfect vision’. Bionic eyes will have all the abilities of modern visual technology like night vision, heat sensors, distant, infra-red and x-ray vision - and other augmented abilities. Likewise, other prosthetics will become smart, enhancing the human experience with enhanced reality.

The latest innovation in prosthetics is the revolutionary addition of machine learning and AI. Here, the wave of change is going to be of tsunamic proportion. Bioengineers are impressively pushing into this frontier, merging the human experience with superhuman abilities. The new field of development is the power of ‘smart brains’ – or neuro-mechanical algorithmic collaboration - where artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the human brain interface to create a brand-new human experience.

Neuro-mechanical algorithmic collaboration may sound like a huge tongue twister – but you already know what it means. Let’s parse it. Neuro- (of the brain), mechanical (of machines) algorithmic (all information, human or machine, is processed by way of algorithms) collaboration (working together). These BMIs (Brain Machine Interfaces) will become the norm of our future. What does that look like? The end result is the human brain having access to any and all information instantly, being able to share it with others seamlessly, and interpolating it into the situation appropriately.

For instance, a doctor in the middle of a surgery observes an unexpected bleed, instantly pulls up in his brain the last 20 occurrences of that bleed in similar situations, and is able to select the best cause and solution. Or you and I could have this conversation brain to brain, without the use of telephones or devices - simply using brain to brain communication. While that seems like a huge concept, in one sense it is not very different to what we do all the time. We use technology – the cell-phone – to communicate thoughts from one brain to another brain. Imagine if we could use technology to negate the need for the cell-phone. That is brain to brain communication.

There is a rat in a cage in Duke University, USA. In front of him are two glass doors that cannot open. He has a probe in his brain that links to a computer. In Brazil, there is another rat with a similar probe in his brain. In front of him are two wooden doors that he cannot see through. Then place a treat behind one of the glass doors in front of the rat in the USA, and his brain tells the rat in Brazil which door to open. That is brain to brain communication. Remove the probe (go wireless) and we have innate brain to brain communication.

There are many, many challenges before this can become a functional reality – but it is within sight. Amongst the biggest challenges are mapping the human brain sufficiently so we know what neurons to fire up, and creating a broad enough wireless connection to relay the enormous amount of information required to transmit even a single thought. We are making progress. Elon Musk is one of the innovators in this field. He is currently suggesting he can make changes to the brain to address Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Autism and other brain disorders.

Scientists can control the movement of a rat with a PlayStation remote type control, have it climb a ladder, jump off a ledge that is higher than it would comfortably jump from, then inject endorphins into the rat’s brain that made the jump feel good.

Who knows – perhaps the opportunity lies ahead to correct socially disruptive behaviour, or criminal thinking? Would that be more effective than incarceration? Who knows - perhaps couples will be able to release endorphins into each other’s brains to establish a sense of bliss? Who knows – perhaps we will be able enhance our brains so that our knowledge is infinite, our character impeccable, and our reality phenomenal? If so, we shall be able to create our own reality, a world in which we and others live in peace and happiness. We can have the life we want in the world we choose.

Who would not want that? Or would they?



Further reading:

https://waitbutwhy.com/2017/04/neuralink.html



18 comments:

Keith said...

A great deal of interest to look at here, Emile.

Including this: ‘We can have the life we want in the world we choose. Who would not want that? Or would they?’ The ‘life we want’ and the ‘world we choose’ sound a tad dicey to me. Eerily like some episode from Rod Serling’s ‘Twilight Zone’, where all that can go wrong does. Makes me fearful I might not pick the right life, or the right world in which to live it.

To that last point, the choice of ‘the life we want’ and ‘the world we choose’ seems possibly to cleave down the middle: On the one hand, the lack of appeal of ‘utopia’ — a term coined by Sir Thomas More to mean, from Greek, ‘not place’; and on the other hand, the lack of appeal of ‘dystopia’ — a term coined by John Stuart Mill to mean ‘bad place’, to counter More. In short, the unappetizing choice between the apparent existential threat of ‘not place’ and the apparent post-apocalyptic threat of ‘bad place’.

So, to these matters, I suspect your skepticism — captured by cautionary question ‘Or would they?’ — surrounding our wisdom in selecting ‘the life we want’ and ‘the world we choose’ strikes me as well founded. I wouldn’t feel confident I’d get the moving parts right in these choices. But grist for Serling, were he still in the 'Twilight Zone' saddle.

Thomas Scarborough said...

In general, we do not seem to be too awake, aware, or alert. I see someone staring at the ashes on the end of their cigarette, another following their shoes as they walk, another meditating with their eyes closed. Our world seems to be fairly much internal, our experience internal. 'Internal' is what Emile's future seems to be. Yet has it not arrived already, in large part? Apart from the things which mesmerise us for much of the time, we spend hours living absorbed in screens of various kinds, which are designed to arouse and shape our feelings. Seven hours a day in the USA.

Thomas Scarborough said...

As we speak, they are manipulating the mood of cows. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50571010

docmartincohen said...

Note to editors, those links should be to actual phrases in the text, and otherwise invisible..

Comment to everyone!

I don't share Emile's enthusiasm for this... Even the rather modest case of the rat:

"Scientists can control the movement of a rat with a PlayStation remote type control, have it climb a ladder, jump off a ledge that is higher than it would comfortably jump from, then inject endorphins into the rat’s brain that made the jump feel good. "

- appalls me. Okay, there will be some cases where technology may alleviatemedical hardship - but that is often the Trojan Horse for technoloiges that go on to have entirely antisocail purposes.

Secondly, as Raymond Tallis has written (see "The Philosopher", our venerable sister site) the workings of hte brain remain highly mysterious and claims about controlling it need to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. "Thank goodness".

Keith said...

‘While that [brain-to-brain communication] seems like a huge concept, in one sense it is not very different to what we do all the time. We use technology — the cell phone — to communicate thoughts from one brain to another brain.’ Do we? Personally, Emile, I see a large difference between how the two rats are ostensibly communicating — with probes directly implanted into their brains — and two people communicating — with cell phones held up to their ears. To say the two mechanisms are ‘not very different’ belies the technologies’ huge dissimilarities: Implants inserted into rat brains (internal, intrusive, involuntary, lack of agency, and unfiltered) contrasted to cell phones held up to human ears (external, discreet, voluntary, agency, and filtered). To equate the use of cell phones to brain-to-brain communication is perhaps a mischaracterization, importantly leaving out the intervening technology. All in all, I suspect the rats, if they had the cognitive wherewithal to make such an informed choice, would likely have opted for the cell phones over the implants.

Emile said...

Keith - thanks for jumping in. "The ‘life we want’ and the ‘world we choose’ sound a tad dicey to me." No doubt - today you might be a cowboy in Texas and tomorrow a Park Ranger in Kruger. The templates we choose to filter our world into could be as simply as the colour shirt we choose to put on. Of course - this level of creative interface lies decades away - but the ultimate possibilities are endless, and the potential for real good all most infinite. That is probably the more altruistic version of the story - there is another more sinister one drive by profit - smiles.

Emile said...

Thomas Scarborough - to your comment about the mesmerized world we live in. While we may not have the technology to create a programmed reality, the truth is that each one of us already lives in the faux world of our own mental creation - programmed by perception. Perception is the highest access to truth we have, and our perceptions are the highest access to truth we have. They define our world view and our personal reality in an absolute way. THEY ARE NOT BASED ON REALITY, but rather our interpretation of reality. And perceptions have not error gauge we can absolutely wrong but believe we are absolutely right. The only difference between this and the enhanced programmable version is that we get to choose scenario template we choose to live our perceptions out in. So your comments are spot on.

Emile said...

DocMartinCohen - thanks for the plug for reality. The march of progress is relentless, and, unfortunately, not driven by philanthropy as much as by profits. Like you, I have questions and concerns - but at this stage it looks like the march will not be stopping by to entertain my opinion. Smiles. Of course, as early in the game as this area of development is, there are still too many variables to really know. But enough talking heads are out there having this discussion to at least require that m=we make room for it in our thinking.

Emile said...

Keith - on your comment that brain to brain communication is both huge and yet not that foreign. I think that is the point - we are well on the road to this type of technology. And if we develop this journey in our minds, it is not all that different to the logical destination of our currently journey.

Emile said...

Keith you may be interested to know that as recently as in the last two months Elon Musk implanted wires many times smaller than a hair into the human brain driven by an earpiece - that both receives information and transmits it into the human brain. While this robotic procedure was complex and very expensive, is comment was he saw this becoming as common as outpatient visits to the doctors office.

Keith said...

Actually, Emile, my point was to disagree with your suggestion that the use of brain implants (in rats) and the use the cell phones (by humans) are at all comparable. Here's the quote, from your original post, that I captured in one of my earlier comments on this matter: ‘While that [brain-to-brain communication] seems like a huge concept, in one sense it is not very different to what we do all the time. We use technology — the cell phone — to communicate thoughts from one brain to another brain.’ I would argue you're making here a false equivalence between the two technologies (for the several reasons — like aspects of intrusiveness and volition and agency, among others — I offered in my second comment above). I feel that your preceding response, though interesting, doesn't really tackle the theme of what I was getting at earlier in pointing to the questionable equivalence between brain implants (in animals that have no say in the matter) and cell phones (by willing humans). The several issues, as I've indicated here and above, include but also go well beyond just differences in the two technologies.

Emile said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emile said...

Keith - thanks for your response. The point with the rat illustration was not to compare willing subjects with unwilling subjects (that is a whole different discussion) but rather to illustrate the developments that medical technology is making in this field. There is no assumption that in the free world this will be forced on anybody anymore than cell phone use is enforced on anybody. We choose cell phones and radios because of the convenience they offer - and because some jobs require them!

docmartincohen said...

"Perception is the highest access to truth we have, and our perceptions are the highest access to truth we have. They define our world view and our personal reality in an absolute way. THEY ARE NOT BASED ON REALITY, but rather our interpretation of reality. "

Ah, here you jump deep into an old philosophical debate, Emile! But I think the answer is not so clear. Some of us, following another fine Reverend Philosopher (Bishop Berkeley), say reality IS just what we perceive, that there is nothing more. Esse est percipi... So how would you demonstrate to us that there is a reality beyond perception? By kicking a stone?!

Emile said...

Keith - good response. Now we are thrusting the oars deep into the seas of philosophy. I would suggest that the only place reality could possibly exist is in the moment of perception. Past reality is simply a memory and future reality but a fantasy. So then - does the moment of reality exist internally (subjective reality) or externally (objective reality)? There are probably few questions as critical to answer for ourselves as this one yet likewise, as few defy answering as effectively as does this one. Do our perceptions seek to observe objective reality - or do they create our personal reality.
Is your reality subjective to you but objective to me? Is there any way to prove that there is ANY reality outside of my own perception? In this scenario - the entire reality exists ONLY in my perception. Therefore, it would seem to me that the answer is unknowable. Even the bliss of a Jesus-focused eternity could simply be the machinations of my subjective reality. So, too, the devil. My dreams are another expression of my personal reality. In my dreams, they seem real. And that perception is, to me, absolute. So both subjective and objective reality - in the broader sense - are simultaneously both subjective and objective. There is no factual way to differentiate between the two. So say I - absolutely!!!!

Thomas Scarborough said...

On the BBC 2 December 2019: 'The truth is, we don’t want paintings of unmitigated joy: because life itself is never so pure.' http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20191202-joy-in-painting-why-sadness-always-creeps-in

Emile said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emile said...

As Clive Tyler of The Bible Institute of South Africa once said, "You are never quite as happy or as sad as you think you are."

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