In Brief
  • The U.S. Department of Defense is researching several ways to enhance humans using technology, from strength-enhancing exoskeletons to quick-processing brain implants.
  • With AI already proving more adept than humans at a number of tasks, merging biological and machine intelligence might be humanity's only hope of keeping up.

If You Can’t Beat Them…

Without a doubt, computers and machines are besting humans in many ways thanks to developments in artificial intelligence (AI). AIs have beaten their human counterparts at everything from games like Go and poker to driving safely and treating illnesses. Clearly, intelligent machines are increasingly becoming better than humans at so many things, and as the old saying goes, if you can’t beat them…merge with them.

Given that AI is expected to surpass humankind at an unprecedented rate, that just might be the best thing we can do, and it’s the idea behind Elon Musk’s neural lace, an unconventional and highly controversial brain-computer interface. That we’re even considering such a device highlights this necessity for a symbiosis between humans and machines. This week, speaking at the World Government Summit in Dubai, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO and founder raised this point once again: “I do think there is a path to having some sort of merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence.”

Musk explained:

To some degree, we are already cyborgs. You think of the digital tools that you have, the applications that you have. You can ask a question and instantly get an answer from Google. You already have a digital tertiary layer. I say ‘tertiary’ because you think of the animal brain or the primal brain, and then the cortex, the thinking brain, and then your digital self as the third layer.

Hasta la Vista?

The potential for this human-machine merger isn’t lost on DARPA, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. “There are a couple of very interesting things happening as we speak facilitating humans and machines working together in a very different way,” said Justin Sanchez, director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, in an interview with Computer World.

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Indeed, we are already seeing this to a certain extent with the latest developments in exoskeleton technology. We now have smart exoskeletons that help paralyzed people walk again or improve the strength and endurance of the average person. “I think the recent science and technology developments we’re making at DARPA, as well as the embracing of physiology and A.I., is enabling us to set up the conditions for profound changes on how humans and machines can work together,” Sanchez added. “We are giving our physiology the opportunity to work with machines in a different way.”

DARPA researchers are developing implantable devices that can perform computing functions similar to a desktop or laptop computer. Sanchez even noted that they have researchers working on the possibility of a human-computer interface using devices and chips that needn’t be implanted in the body. Another potential technology is a pair of smart contact lenses that allow soldiers to see what a drone sees from above.

Of course, while the technological possibilities are already here, there are other things that need to be considered, such as what these enhanced capabilities would mean for humanity in general. “We deeply feel that we can’t do this work in a vacuum,” Sanchez said. “We need to consider all aspects … the moment we try to even start thinking about science and technology in this space. There’s a responsibility that goes along with this.”