Believe The Hype?

Brain augmentation is a hot topic; from nootropics, to brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), and even implants designed to restore movement to those with paralysis. But how much of the buzz is just hype? To find out, Edd Gent of SingularityHub interviewed Duke University neuroscientist Mikhail Lebedev, who works on brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) and has recently won a $100,000 prize for his work in brain augmentation.

Lebedev thinks we will see both realistic visual prostheses and technologies for the rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord injury and stroke within the next 10 years. Further advances like the ability to type directly from your brain to a screen using implanted electrodes will take more time — perhaps 20 years. And Lebedev thinks it'll take much longer before we're decoding brain activity or free-floating thoughts.

Image Credit: HypnoArt/Pixabay

Will brain augmentation enable us to interface with artificial intelligence (AI)? Lebedev thinks that's realistic, but that interfacing with AI using augmented reality (AR) and our senses — which are already well-understood, unlike the “code” of the brain — is going to come first. This way we can enhance our own limited capabilities with AI as we learn more about the inner workings of the human brain.

How Much Is Possible

When it comes to augmenting brain function, almost anything is potentially possible. Sensors can be added to the brain, interacting with sensory functions. Lebedev cites adding a sensor of electromagnetic fields or visual sensors around the head's perimeter for panoramic vision as examples.

Current research into micro-stimulation of the brain seems to show that it's possible to suppress some processing steps — not really to enhance function, Lebedev points out. However, he also points out that suppression can itself be helpful, like when the brain is producing biased responses rather than useful solutions.

There are several basic areas of brain augmentation work currently happening: non-invasive tactics such as electroencephalogram (EEG) systems, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIR); invasive approaches such as BCIs, implants, and BMIs; pharmacological approaches such as nootropics and molecular drug treatments; and genetic approaches such as optogenetics and implanted neurons. There is sometimes even significant overlap between some of these areas, and as technologies advance, we may see these categories bleeding together even more.

While access to technology is always a concern, Lebedev points out that continued discovery will always help the problem. Further development tends to make technologies cheaper and more accessible to everyone. (We can see an example of this happening as blockchain and access to cell phones is fostering opportunities in developing countries where infrastructure for landlines was never created.)

And while there are risks that will come with more advanced brain augmentation technologies — as there are with any breakthrough tech — Lebedev has a positive outlook on what the future may hold, “I’m optimistic, so I see mostly upsides. We really want to improve; we want to become less primitive people.”

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