In my science fiction novels, Nexus and Crux, I write about technology ('Nexus') that makes it possible to send information in and out of human brains, making it possible for humans to share what they're seeing, hearing, feeling, and even thinking with one another; and also for human minds to exchange data with computers.
The early versions of that sort of technology are real. We've sent video signals into the brains of blind people, audio into the brains of the deaf, touch into the brains of the paralyzed. We've pulled what people are seeing, their desired movements, and more out of the brains of others. In animals we've gone farther, boosting memory and pattern matching skills, and linking the minds of two animals even thousands of miles apart.
I gave a recent TEDx talk on linking human brains about the science in this area, and where I see it going. You can watch the video below.
Now, just as with AI, I don't foresee this leading to a Singularity. If anything, the feedback loop here is slower than in AI. We're extremely loathe to get things wrong when tinkering with humans. The safety bar for doing a surgery to implant something in the human body (let along the human brain) is extremely high.
Indeed, brain surgery itself is biggest barrier to progress here. We're going to need new, less invasive ways to interface brains and electronics if we ever want this to take off. In Nexus I proposed doing this by self-assembling nano-structures, each component of which is small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier. It's sort of a barely-plausible hand wave. Real neuroscientists, however, have somewhat similar ideas. Rudolfo Llinas, who was the Editor in Chief of the journal Neuroscience for 20 years, has proposed inserting somewhere between tens of thousands and millions of nanowires into the brain by sliding them into an artery somewhere else in your body. This approach needs no brain surgery.
If this field does move quickly enough, it presents an alternative model to the 'Race Against the Machine' where humans see themselves eclipsed over time by digital technologies. A recent post on big data used the term 'Race With the Machine' and I think that's exactly what's possible here, wherein advances in AI and all other fields of computing essentially enhance human abilities.
Or you can think of this in the way that some commenters on the Singularity is Further Than It Appears thread did. This is IA - Intelligence Augmentation (or perhaps more accurately 'CA' - Capability Augmentation) which allows humans to latch onto the advances being made in digital technology and draft them, gaining in capabilities as they go.
There's an excellent case that this is what's happening today. My phone (which posseses more computing power than all of NATO did at its formation) doesn't do much thinking on its own. But it does work as a cognitive prosthesis for me, boosting my capabilities, whether its directly plugged into my brain, or just interfacing through the old-fashioned I/O of my eyes and fingers.
In any case, I encourage you to watch the video.
No technology, of course, lives in a vacuum. You'll note that in the TEDx talk I'm rather optimistic about the impact that greater communication abilities have on society. But there are certainly other darker scenarios for the future of information technology that have been put to the page, with 1984 and riffs off that theme high among them. By analogy, in Nexus and Crux much of the action is driven by the existence of a War-on-Drugs / War-on-Terror style crackdown on human enhancement technologies. I'll be back to talk about those political aspects of technology, and how much our world does or doesn't resemble 1984, later this week.
And thanks again to Charlie for having me here.