How brain-computer interfaces will change the human story forever.
Predicting the future is never an exact science.
Scale is the main problem we face when we try to do so.
The human brain is the most complex mechanism in the known universe. How can we ever hope to map the interactions between seven billion brains and the various physical and biological phenomena present on the Earth?
The future is emergent. It is not a distinct state of affairs divorced from the realities of today but rather a state that is currently coming into being: a script that the present is continuously creating. Without fully knowing the present, we can never predict the future.
Talk about tricky tasks.
We can, however, predict the future based on prior probabilities and trends. People usually live for 70+ years, so a 21-year old assumes that he has approximately another 50 years. The sun has risen every day for the past six billion or so years; it is likely to rise again tomorrow.
In this morass of shifting possibilities, I see one that excites and scares me in equal measure: the connection of the human brain to the datasphere (what we call the Internet today).
Such a shift will alter our lives spectacularly, leading to a chain reaction that culminates with our subject today: the rise of the connected human organism.
Let’s start with the first piece of context required to understand this particular possible future:
Situational Abstraction: The Problem with Language
Seven billion plus humans walk the Earth holding tiny universes inside our heads, connected by shared experiences.
Few amongst us lack the archaic shared understanding that light is ‘good’ and darkness, representing the night, is ‘bad.’ We have all experienced adrenaline kicking in, we share common (if not completely similar) sexual experiences, most of us know what a full (or empty) stomach feels like, and everybody sleeps.
Of course, we were all born and are moving constantly and inevitably towards our individual deaths.
Today, most of our conscious communication is linguistic, built upon an extensive conceptual framework. We talk, write, text, and type, all the while not even realizing the existence (let alone limitations) of the linguistic structures we use.
Think about it.
The entirety of our language is built around our worldview: a society of the colorblind would likely have no words for red, green, or yellow. Different societies view time differently: Asian cultures see time as cyclical compared to the linear European view of time.
These differences in worldview translate directly onto language (Sanskrit and Hindi use the same word for tomorrow and yesterday, with modifiers to differentiate between the past and future).
I call this abstraction of information to the environment and to our shared worldview ‘situational abstraction’.
Situational abstraction is what determines whether the woman in short shorts is either a slut or an empowered feminist; whether the teen wearing a leather jacket is a biker or a Hollywood actor; whether the man in robes sitting on the donkey robes is either insane or Jesus Christ himself.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
But what other choice do we have, in the isolated, disconnected worlds inside our heads? We cannot see into anyone’s head, meaning that we can only judge from appearances.
Is there no other option?
The problem with ‘situational abstraction’ is imprecision; an imprecision that worms its way into our language and causes many of our ills today. How many times do we experience miscommunicate straightforward concepts?
More often than you’d think, I bet.
It turns out that humans, while being shockingly similar, are also surprisingly unique. Language (shared concepts and rules woven into verbal form) simply cannot transcend these differences, creating enormous inefficiencies in our communication.
Language, unfortunately, can only communicate concepts that we have already experienced or concepts that we are familiar enough with to conceptualize. I could sit down and explain to you all day what a dog is, but if you have never seen an animal, you will have great trouble understanding me.
Alternatively, I could introduce you to my dog and give you five minutes with it, allowing you to build a conceptualization of the dog linked to the word ‘dog.’ Language consists of a ‘signifier’ (the word ‘dog’) and a ‘signified’ (the concept ‘dog’), and the two have very little in common, except in our minds, as Hjelmslev posited about a century ago.
Communicating tangible concepts is hard enough, but communicating intangible, abstract ideas, becomes close to impossible. How can you ever know whether your ‘love’ for your spouse is any different from someone’s ‘love’ for their dog?
How can you ever know that anyone else is truly alive on the inside and not just an unconscious, lifeless robot who simply responds to external events using prewritten scripts?
Our lack of understanding of others’ inner experience isn’t just an abstract issue — it creates major real-world problems.
How often do men dismiss women as ‘irrational creatures’ without understanding their situational context: their lifelong experience of being the literally physically weaker sex and a propensity to feel and express more and stronger negative emotions?
(Fun exercise for men: imagine living in a society where around half the population is approximately twice as strong as you. Would you be more or less easily scared? Would you be more or less direct in your communication? Would certain behaviors seem much more threatening to you than it does now?)
How often do women say ‘men are dogs’ without understanding the strength and power of the male sexual urge?
Think about situations where you annoy somebody versus situations where somebody annoys you. The former seems (to you) a misunderstanding; if you even realize you annoyed the other person. You probably didn’t mean to hurt them.
The latter, on the other hand, makes you annoyed or even angry. Behind all anger is a ‘perceived provocation, hurt or threat’. You feel as if the other person is provoking, hurting, or threatening you, and the accuracy of your perception stops mattering to you.
Why should there be such a massive difference between the two situations?
It’s very easy to assume that others’ actions are about you, but here’s the harsh truth: they very rarely are.
This belief comes from a form of solipsism — you only experience your own experience of the world, so why should anybody’s experience of the world be any different from yours?
(The same concept applies to most organized religion: the world exists for my salvation. As Nietzsche pointed out so succintly “The ‘salvation of the soul’ — in plain language: ‘the world revolves around me’.)
If you knew, absolutely and undoubtedly and obviously, that everyone had an inner life as rich and deep as yours, would you act the same way towards others?
If you realized that the beggar on the road has an inner life similar to yours, with memories and hopes and fears and feelings just like you, would you be so quick to keep walking?
If Israelis and Palestinians realized just how similar they were; if Republicans and Democrats could share the rich inner tapestry of their individual lives; if Indians and Pakistanis were able to see their inner lives in exacting detail:
Would the world be any different today?
Can We Ever Understand?
Is it possible for us ever to realize the true depth of others’ inner lives?
Almost every major philosopher and psychologist in history speaks of a transpersonal state of consciousness consisting of one major feature; being one with the world and all its inhabitants. Let’s look at some ‘intellectual giants’ who have espoused a belief in or who have documented some form of spiritual or transpersonal experiences:
Plato. Aristotle. Socrates. Plotinus. Adi Shankara (coincidentally, my name originates from his philosophy: Advaita Vedanta, literally translated as ‘not-two’). Raman Maharshi. Sri Aurobindo. Gautama Buddha. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Saint Teresa of Avila. Abraham Maslow. Clare Graves. Beck and Cowan. Carl Jung. Eckhart Tolle. Henry Thoreau. Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Hegel. Habermas. Schopenhauer. Joseph Campbell. Ken Wilbur. Huang Po. Victor Frankl.
Quite a list, isn’t it?
Psychedelics and deep meditation states make it possible for us to experience ‘ego death’ and other ‘altered states of consciousness’ (other means that engender such states are dancing, chanting, hypnosis, etc.)
Do you disagree?
Take 400µg of LSD, and then we’ll talk.
The Connected Human Organism
What do language, psychedelics, and Buddha have to do with the future of humanity? Where does Cyber Sapiens step into the narrative I am weaving?
Let’s face it: a large portion of humanity is incapable (or unwilling) to spend large amounts of energy on meditation, mindfulness, and other paths to transpersonal states of being. Luckily, we don’t need them — we’ve got a more intentional tool.
We have technology.
Today, you can communicate instantly with anyone in almost any part of the globe. You can capture the light bouncing off your face, encode it digitally, and send this encoding over thousands of kilometers through glass fibers slightly thicker than a human hair.
You probably don’t realize how amazing today’s technology is.
You use a smartphone. Communication — the transmission of information — now requires you to stick your hand into your pocket, pull out your phone, unlock it, pull up an app, and voila! As long as you meet a few prerequisites (Internet connection, battery levels, etc.), you can now communicate with any human who has contributed to the Internet, dead or alive.
The Internet folds space and time (at least the past) into a datasphere. Your temporal location doesn’t matter: you can access information contributed hundreds of years ago. Your physical location doesn’t matter: you could be on the Moon, and you would be able to read this (on a very slow connection, but my point still stands.)
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of giants.”— Isaac Newton, 1675.
If Isaac Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, in a time when informational exchange was so greatly limited, what about us, today?
We have seen that almost every major human innovation has facilitated either physical mobility or information exchange among Homo Sapiens. Since the establishment of cyberspace, we have dedicated much of our considerable intellectual ability to make it easier to access the Internet.
Today, cyberspace wars with physical space for our time, energy, and attention. In some parts of the world, people use cyberspace to interact, date, hook up, order food, shop, read, watch movies, commute, and so much more.
The Internet changed the world and will continue changing it for the foreseeable future.
Smart devices are getting easier and easier to use.
Computers limited access to cyberspace to fixed points. Laptops allowed you to access this new world from anywhere. Blackberries brought push notifications to (mostly) businesspersons. Apple brought the smartphone to the masses of the United States of America. Google, with Android, brought smartphones to the masses of the world.
Somewhere during these paradigm shifts, Amazon said ‘let there be Alexa!’
All of a sudden, you didn’t have to type out questions and read answers — you could ask for information or issue commands verbally. Virtual assistants existed before Alexa, but Amazon made them mainstream.
What comes next?
A brain-computer interface.
Today, we walk around with two cognitive processors: one in our heads and one in our pockets.
You no longer need to remember anything, perform mental mathematical calculations, or rely on spoken language for communication. Smartphones allow us to offload cognitive and communicative tasks to the silicon in our smartphones, ostensibly so we can focus on living our lives.
People say that smartphones make us less human.
‘So what?’ I respond.
Every technological breakthrough for the last 2000 years has made us less ‘human’ (compared to life before said breakthrough). Every major technological step has changed us in fundamental ways. Those who make this argument are actually saying ‘x will make us different from what we are now’, where x can be any technological milestone e.g. language, fire, electricity, television, smartphones, etc.
That’s not to say that smartphones don’t cause problems.
They do, and we need to figure out how to solve these problems. We need to figure out how we can live fulfilling lives because of these devices and not despite them. We need to figure out exactly what part of ‘being human’ they take away and decide whether we are okay with losing that part.
But these problems don’t change the fact that smartphones are the next step in the story of mankind: one of the first steps in the age of the connected human organism.
Back to our question: what comes next?
The Brain Computer-Interface
Silicon (or another computing variant) will inevitably make its way into our brains. Processing devices are getting smaller and smaller, and eventually, they will become small enough to fit inside (or on) our bodies.
Why carry a bulky smartphone when you could have a chip in your head? Or hand?
External computing power will have to go internal if we want to avoid replacement or displacement by Artificial Intelligence, which, by all accounts, will have cognitive and communicative capabilities far beyond ours.
The average global Internet speed is 9.1Mbps. Considering that a character in C (a popular programming language) is one byte, and roughly estimating a word to contain six characters, a computer can transmit 1.5 million words per second.
5G networks operate at a minimum peak download speed of 20Gbps. 6G might double or triple these speeds.
You do the math.
How much information (in words) can you transmit in a second? Compare that to computers’ communication speeds, and you begin to see just how outclassed we might be.
“To avoid becoming like monkeys, humans must merge with machines.”— Elon Musk, 2018.
Think, for a second, about what it would mean to connect our brains to the Internet.
What would it do to our day-to-day existence?
Imagine a world where you can communicate not only your emotions and thoughts but also their depth and profundity.
Words are a flat, two-dimensional representation of what is inside our heads — imagine a world where our true depth shone freely and obviously to all. Imagine being able to communicate concepts without moving a muscle: everything would be done from inside your head (or offloaded to the cloud).
Imagine the entire world of human information not at your fingerprints, but inside your head. Imagine telepathy and telekinesis becoming commonplace. Imagine switching on your lightbulbs with a thought. Sending a message to your friend across the Atlantic without having to lift a finger.
Imagine downloading a book to your brain and having it seep into your unconscious as you go about your day. Imagine contributing your biological processing power to a distributed computing structure hard at work solving the hardest problems of the universe.
Imagine a world where every eye is a camera; where you can livestream the feed from your optic nerve or take a picture to capture what’s in front of your eyes. Imagine taking a selfie by connecting to your friend’s optic nerve and capturing the image they see of you*.
*These are hypothetical scenarios, not definite predictions of how BCI technology will develop.
Imagine an operating system you control with your brain, sending input directly into your sensory system. Such technology would give an entirely new meaning to Augmented Reality and further break down the barriers between the Internet and our physical world.
We would have to rethink governance as it exists today. Archaic social structures would break down, with new ones rising to take their place.
I imagine the barriers between humans breaking down even further. Globalization is already at play through existing technology — many of us already see ourselves more as global citizens than as followers of any particular state, ethnicity, race, religion, or ideology.
A BCI (brain-computer interface) would accelerate this process, linking us even tighter with bonds forged from our similarities, leading to the rise of a human population so tightly integrated, that from outside, it would look like a single organism.
How long would it take the combined mental capacities of 7 billion humans to reach Mars? To reach the stars? To solve the deep mysteries underlying physics? To eradicate world hunger? To fix climate change?
To figure out the meaning to life (if such actually exists)?
What do you get when you combine an Elon Musk, a Stephen Hawking, and a Terrence Tao?
We could very well find out.
The craziest part of all of this is that we will likely see it happen within the century.
Elon Musk claims that his company, Neuralink, will soon release a brain-machine interface. A dozen other tech companies (Facebook, Kernel, NeuroSky, Emotiv, Mindmaze, Openwater, NeuroVista, and many more) are pouring billions of dollars into researching the technology. These companies are currently working on health and neuroscientific applications, important steps to a brainwave-reliant operating system.
If you were born around the year 2000, you will definitely use some form of a BCI before you die.
I am not naïve. I believe that we will have to overcome great pathologies before we can benefit from the fruits of this technology.
Christian fundamentalism will fight tooth and nail against this ‘mark of the beast.’ Nationalists will try to subvert this technology to their own uses, forcing their particular brand of morality on us. Cyberwarfare will become even deadlier as hackers will find ways to interfere directly with our brain.
You could just as easily reverse my earlier question. How long would it take the combined brainpower of humanity to destroy the Earth? To poison nature beyond redemption? To dream up tortures and tribulations far beyond anything we can currently imagine?
Here’s what I believe.
I believe that the world of the future will be neither a utopia nor a dystopia. Similar to today, it will be a world that lies somewhere in the middle.
The future may sound scary, but imagine describing the world today to someone living in the 18th century.
Steel snakes that traverse entire continents. Tubes that roar into the heavens on tongues of flame. Little glass rectangles into which we stare for hours. An invisible, intangible substance that we use to transmit light and sound around the globe. Metal carriages that move at speeds of up to 200kph and belch smoke from their behinds.
Our hypothetical 18th-century friend would probably either break down crying or burn you at the stake.
If there is one thing we have always feared, it is the unknown.
I believe that the problems of today’s world will seem minute and laughable to the denizens of the not-so-distant future. They will probably be grappling with their own problems, problems that we may not even be able to imagine today.
I believe that we will (in the long run) avoid losing ourselves in the shared worldspace of the human organism. I believe that we will unleash creative capacities and potentials we cannot even dream of today, establishing ourselves as a firmly dominant species that will stand together with Artificial Intelligence as an equal.
I am an optimist
What do you believe?
This essay was originally published on Medium on May 7th, 2019.