Humanism and Brain Technology: The Borg, The Matrix, and The New Voices In Your Head

You don’t have to have seen the kid-flick Goonies to imagine a gadget-savvy adolescent who’s one mission in their little life is to contraption-ize everything. I am, in fact, guilty of “booby”-trapping my room for fun in order to reenact my favorite MacGyver episodes (safely, of course). I was known to string up cords that crossed my little boy bedroom with mostly unknown but very important functions…maybe one string flipped the light switch off when the doorknob was turned so my mom wouldn’t catch me awake after my bedtime. I distinctly remember another set at a high angle so that I could send my dirty clothes across the room to the hamper when it was time to get into bed. While none of these contraptions were very practicable (or sightly), my mom tolerated them for a few days because she knew it was important to let the little engineer in me experiment with ways to make my life easier or better. I probably won’t surprise you by saying that none of my earliest inventions resulted in a significantly increased quality of life…but the spirit of that invention is more important than any of us are aware; that spirit has come be called Humanism, or more particularly: Transhumanism. Transhumanists mostly go unidentified—those that are, typically self-identify—but most find themselves up to their eyeballs in the world of technology. The express goals of this technology fascination is always the same…make being human better.

In order to improve the human condition, Transhumanists must first understand and explore the opportunities for improvement. The improvements must be objective and measurable; this turns out to be harder than it seems. Consider the merits of the gas-powered car…never before have we been able to zoom to and from our destinations with such speed and ease. However, even after a nearly 100 year love affair with the automobile there are still those who are dissatisfied with the improvement and complain about this or that flaw and seem ready to abandon the technology all-together. Consider next, the complexity of the human body…as we introduce drugs and devices are implanted, there are often unintended consequences. The drug that thins our blood makes us prone to bleeding, the drug that calms inflammation compromises the immune system, and the implanted insulin pump often causes serious infections because the tube that crosses the skin collects and delivers bacteria deep into the tissue. Complex systems abound in the body, chief among them is the human brain. 100 billion neurons make upwards of 1000 trillion connections. The unintended consequences of modifying such a system can be severe. For years we saw seemingly savage interventions in the brain such as lobotomies and ablations (essentially cutting out offending parts of the brain), electroshock therapy, and extreme high-dose pharmaceutical therapies with opiates and cocaine, and other psychoactives like Lithium and even Cannabis. Despite the lack of sophistication, the more primitive therapies have only been retired when something apparently better came along; this indicates that the benefits outweighed the known side-effects. We can talk about the unknown side-effects somewhere else. First, stop for a moment and answer this question of paramount importance: what is it about our bodies that makes us uniquely human? Maybe there is more than one answer but it cannot be denied that our brains are the most unique thing about our species as well as our most powerfully evolved feature. Naturally, it is the most tempting target for Transhumanists and their ability and experience enhancing technologies. We are beginning to see these neurotechnologies in clinical settings as well as in the hands of the private consumer—they arrive in the form of implants, uploads and downloads, assistive intelligences, brain computer interfaces, and many other creative modalities.

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Implants and The Borg

The seemingly stray reference to the evil race of humanoid robots from Star Trek is more apt than you know. The very laboratory that I work in is founded on the goal of implementing a computer chip to replace damaged parts of the brain—particularly the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory management). How much of your brain must you replace with computer componentry before you become Borg? That is a question for the philosophers—the reality is that there are members of our community that are severely hindered by dysfunctional brains and implants are a popular proposed solution to the problem. In fact, there are thousands of these devices already deployed around the world: the Cochlear implant and the Deep Brain Stimulator are very effective at correcting some types of hearing and motor disorders. Other devices correcting more complicated disorders are in the pipeline.

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Uploads, Downloads, and The Matrix

If sticking really big needles into your head or neck creeps you out you can rest assured that there will likely be less invasive or scary ways to “upload” your brain or “download” things to your brain. Types of imaging using really powerful magnets and dyes have been developed that may soon have the resolution to peer into the tightest corners of your brain and extract information such as where neurons are, where they send their branches, who they connect to, and perhaps even how strong that connection is. With this information, it is conceivable that engineers could reconstruct many of the important features of your brain in a computer model…essentially taking a snapshot of what it is that makes you you—voile brain uploaded. The download is both much more complex and much more simple at the same time…information in the brain is encoded in individual neuron “spikes” and can therefore be modulated by inducing these spikes in a pre-programmed manner. By encoding an outside message into this spike-language and inducing this pattern of activity in the right region of the brain you can effectively communicate directly to the brain any piece of information which you can reduce to this spike-language. A lot of work is being done to do exactly this. Retinal implants and Cochlear implants are still the most successful examples of this method of information delivery. They by-pass the eyes and ears and communicate outside visual and auditory stimulus directly to the brain in a way that the brain understands. Other applications such as that in my own lab have more complicated hurdles to jump because we don’t yet understand at an abstract level what the stimulus of other brain systems are. This makes translation into and out of spike-language difficult.

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Assistive Technologies and Brain Computer Interfaces (Jarvis, The Red Queen, and the little voice in your head)

While Siri and “Ok Google” are a far cry from what we hope to finally achieve in artificial intelligence, their application is very Transhumanist! Their primary purpose is to help us navigate the world of information and find the best answers quickly. They also operate as a more high-level interface with the device on which they live. Advances in neurotechnology suggest that it may someday be possible to merge this assistive technology with an implant and use it to directly modulate brain activity…uploading and downloading information to and from our brains constantly. This would allow you to keep a steady finger on the pulse of information most relevant to your moment to moment interests. If you aren’t convinced of the power that this could hold…imagine how test-taking would necessarily require more creativity instead of simply recall, or how about all of those almost acquaintances who’s name you can’t remember…wouldn’t it be nice to have their name and pertinent details whispered to you discreetly in your time of need? All of this and more is imaginable given the current trajectory of neuroscience and technology research.

Humanism is Optimism and Materialism Combined

Lets briefly explore the motivations of someone who wishes to improve the human experience or condition with technology. They obviously don’t envision the end of humanity within their lifetimes, nor do they struggle to see the value of easing some of the challenges humans face. You might say this makes up most of the population…I would agree. Humanism, and Transhumanism by extension, is a nearly-innate philosophical world-view that, in my opinion, one must try very hard to be talked out of. Optimism is at the very core of what makes a Transhumanist tick…they only want to imagine a world better or more awesome and interesting than the one they live in. Their means to bringing that about? Technology…But why not politics, or social activism, or journalism? Let me answer your question like this…can you think of anything in the past decade that has enacted more social change than Facebook, or provided more educational opportunity than Google, or put more power (literally) into the hands of the people than Apple or Samsung? While we may not necessarily prescribe to the world-view of these companies we can immediately see the power for change provided by technological advancement. It opens the eyes of the public to new ideas and ways of living. Transhumanism may be optimism, and it may be materialism, but it is also one of the most truly modern and rational work philosophies.

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Clayton S. Bingham is a Biomedical Engineer working at the Center for Neural Engineering at University of Southern California. Under the direction of Drs. Theodore Berger and Dong Song, Clayton builds large-scale computational models of neurological systems. Currently, the emphasis is on the modeling of hippocampal tissue in response to electrical stimulation with the goal of optimizing the placement of stimulating electrodes in regions of the brain that are dysfunctional. These therapies can be used for a broad range of pathologies including Alzheimer’s, various motor disorders, depression, and Epilepsy.

If you would like to hear more about the work done by Clayton, and his colleagues, in the USC Center for Neural Engineering he can be reached at: csbingha-at-usc-dot-edu.