If you could push a button, flip a switch, or utter a simple command and have all of the vast knowledge of the human race suddenly embedded in your memory. Would you?
Imagine it. A sudden flash and you can recite Shakespeare on a whim, do calculus in your sleep, build a nuclear reactor in your back yard, and speak every language on the planet. Like Neo and his flash drive brain having an expertise in Kung-Fu uploaded through a dial up internet connection.
Seriously, would you do it? I would. Without hesitation. Though I’ve asked around and there are some who wouldn’t. I put together an impromptu poll asking this question and I floated it around my various social media accounts and the results weren’t really surprising. The poll is still open, but of the respondents at the time of writing, more than 75% answered in the affirmative (either an unconditional yes, or a conditional yes depending on what subjects would be covered). As I said, that’s not surprising. What is surprising – at least to me – is that a small percentage of even the few who answered the poll indicated that they wouldn’t want to have knowledge effortlessly implanted by technological means.
Was this the result of my poorly thought out poll answers? Or are there people who really don’t want to know what exists beyond their small circle? This, to me, is a bizarre idea, but I’m sure they have their reasons. Off the top of my head, I think those reasons might stem from a mistrust of the process – whatever that may be (see below) – or a mistrust of those administering it. I’d like to think that those people might change their minds if those trust issues didn’t exist. But I can’t speak for them.
This is all hypothetical fantasy though, isn’t it? It’s Hollywood, Keanu Reeves, superhero stuff, right? Well, not really. What we’re talking about is creating new memories in the brain containing whatever information we want to upload, so to speak. Think of a computer, with bytes of information being used by the operating system. In this case, replace bytes with memories, and the operating system with your consciousness, and voila! You’ve got yourself an insta-learning gizmo.
I’ve already told you about researchers using flashes of light to erase and then reintroduce frightful memories in rats. This confirmed the molecular basis of memory. I’ve also discussed how a different group of researchers recently created new, conscious memories in mice through the direct stimulation of a special kind of neuron called place cells.
So there you go, proof of concept. I will admit though, that these examples are far from what I described above. The basic principal is the same though, sort of.
It’s one thing to induce vague associations with fear and reward, which is something we’ve been doing for centuries, but even with these high tech methods there isn’t much of a difference between direct neuron stimulation and good old-fashioned behavioural conditioning. There is no explicit information being introduced, all they’re doing is manipulating previously existing memories or associations to create new behaviours. So the prospect of introducing usable knowledge is still out of reach. But that’s only one of the possible methods we could use to achieve these ends.
One of my favourite tech subjects is neuroprosthetics. That is implanting technology into a person’s brain to act as a synthetic replacement for areas of their brain that have been damaged one way or another. At the current level of materials and neurosurgical techniques we’re able to provide people with congenital defects such as blindness and deafness with a fully integrated technological solution that, in some cases, allows them to recover more than 100% of the lost sense. That is to say, they can see and/or hear better than you or I because of the implants.
But that’s not all they do. These kinds of implants are what allowed Jan Sheurmann (a quadriplegic) to fly an F35 Joint Strike Fighter jet (in a simulator).
Researchers even think that such implants could eventually provide increases in memory capacity, cognition, and recall. It would be like giving a supercomputer steroids. But as NYU psychology professor Gary Marcus and CSO of the Allen Institute Christof Koch explained in a Wall Street Journal essay last year, this is only the very tippy-top of the proverbial iceberg.
Even if researchers ultimately can’t define or directly manipulate the creation of discreet memories (which current research says they probably can in time), what about implants that can wirelessly connect your brain directly to the internet? What if you could access any website, say Wikipedia, just by thinking about it, wherever you happen to be, and having all of that information at your disposal in the literal blink of an eye? What would be the difference between that and what I proposed at the opening of this post?
You might say that accessing external information on the web is different, and perhaps safer than having that same information implanted permanently into your brain, more autonomous maybe, and you might be right. But I don’t even want to think about the brain-computer viruses of the future. This technology is coming though, its precursors are already being built and used in laboratories all over the world. Soon it will be the realm of life saving medical advances, and then, maybe…consumer electronics.
For people my age, these are fun thought experiments and little more. It’s unlikely such advances will be realised in my lifetime (though I’m hopeful), but our children, and our children’s children? We might just live long enough to witness the dawn of a new species. Homo genius maybe?