Tag Archives: Neuralink

Texting, Sharing Feelings, And How Neuralink Could Revolutionize Both

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A while back, I speculated that memory enhancement might be the first “killer app” for brain implants. At the time, I thought my logic was solid. Every emerging technology needs that one lucrative use that makes it more than just a gimmick. Killer apps are what helped make smartphones more prevalent than toilets in some parts of the world. I believe brain implants will follow a similar path through companies like Neuralink.

I still believe that memory enhancement will be one of those functions that helps turn brain implants into a multi-billion-dollar industry and Elon Musk is likely to secure a share of those billions. However, after listening to the announcement that Musk gave earlier this year about the future of Neuralink, I’d like to revise my speculation a bit.

What Musk presented was plenty intriguing. Neuralink isn’t some wide-eyed fantasy endeavor conjured by an eccentric billionaire. It’s a real company seeking to develop real products that’ll create a whole new market. Some of those early products are already taking shape.

Right now, the goal is simple. Before humans can link their brains to a simulated world on par with “The Matrix,” they first have to develop a means of interfacing with a basic computer. That kind of technology is not fanciful science fiction. We’ve already successfully inserted brain implants into monkeys, which they’ve used to interface with computers.

At this point, linking a brain to a computer isn’t that great a feat, which is why Musk noted that the first prototypes were being developed to assist quadriplegics. They have much more to gain by being able to interact with a computer. The same can’t be said for most people. Why would they undergo invasive brain surgery just so they could send text messages without typing them?

This is where I believe there’s some untapped potential that Neuralink is in a perfect position to realize. It might even be more feasible in the near-term than memory enhancement, as both a product and a killer app. It’s the kind of function that wouldn’t just convince people to let someone stick electrodes into their brains. It could revolutionize how people communicate with one another.

To understand the extent of that potential, take a moment to look at the last five text messages you sent through your smartphone. It doesn’t matter who you sent them to or why. Just take a step back and consider the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of communication.

In terms of strengths, it’s simple and consistent. It doesn’t matter if you’re a poor speaker or have anxiety issues. As long as you can type out the words and the receiver can read them, you can convey a message that instantly travels from one side of the planet to another. As a communications tool, it’s quite revolutionary, especially when you consider how difficult it was to send messages in the past.

At the same time, it has some major limitations. Texting is so impersonal. Even with the benefit of emojis, it’s still just text on a screen. It can’t convey a sense of nuance or subtext. There’s no undertone to decipher or facial cues to note. While this can make the message more objective, it also makes it feel cold and unemotional. It’s part of why breaking up with someone via text is so taboo.

With those limitations in mind, imagine having the ability to convey a feeling to go along with a text message. Instead of an emoji, you included the emotional context of that message. Maybe you were angry, upset, offended, or elated. It doesn’t have to be too complex. It just has to give a dramatic weight to the emotion.

You send that message knowing the person on the other end could experience it too. They don’t have to read the words and surmise your feelings. They know because they get to experience them too. They feel what you felt when you sent that message. They feel it in a way that no amount of facial cues or subtext can adequately convey.

When you text someone you love them, they can feel your love.

When you text someone you’re angry, they can feel the extent of your anger.

When you text someone you’re seriously depressed, they know it’s not a joke.

This sort of insight is unprecedented. It’s also a function that companies like Neuralink can make a reality and market it as a revolutionary form of communication. It wouldn’t require that we completely abandon our current methods of communication. People would still need their smartphones and computers. This would just be a way of augmenting those tools.

Once a brain implant can link up to a smartphone, then there’s suddenly a new communications channel the likes of which we’ve never had. That channel need not be restricted to moving a cursor or typing out letters on a screen. These commands are simply brain signals coded by implants and transmitted to a device that can make sense of them. Our feelings are just a different kind of signal.

Modern neuroscience already has a comprehensive understanding of where emotions come from. A brain implant could simply take signals from those parts of our brain, code them in a way our smartphone can interpret, and package them in a way that can be transmitted and received by another user.

It’s not telepathy. It’s not complex thought or ideas, either. These are the kinds of feelings and emotions that almost everyone experiences in some form or another. Our natural empathy may allow us to relate to one another as a social species, but we’ve never been able to truly share our feelings in a way that others can experience.

I know the idea of sharing feelings has gained a corny connotation, but I think a part of that has to do with how inefficient our current system is. Even before smartphones and texting, our age-old traditions of talking to one another, deciphering tone, and reading body language has left us with plenty of room for improvement.

It doesn’t matter how empathetic or understanding you are. At the end of the day, when someone shares their feelings, you’re still guessing the details and trying to mirror them within your brain. While that has taken us far as a species, in terms of forming social bonds and coordinating as a group, brain implants could take it to another level.

Once we can transmit our feelings with the same ease we do with a text message, then that takes us into uncharted territory. Armed with this tool, we wouldn’t just be able to communicate over vast distances. We’d be able to convey genuine, intimate feelings. Our brains are already wired to form strong social bonds with others. This technology would effectively supercharge it.

It certainly wouldn’t stop with just two people sending a text message with a happiness emotion attached to it. Once emotions can be transmitted like a text message, then there’s no reason they can’t be shared the same way we share everything else on social media. While some may recoil at the idea of sharing something so intimate, trend is already ongoing. Sharing feelings on a mass scale would just accelerate that trend.

The impact this will have on people is difficult to determine. Like I said before, this is uncharted territory. We’ve never had the ability to both know and share the intimate feelings of other people. Would that make us more empathetic? Would that make us more loving? I’ve argued before that it likely will, but I also don’t deny that some may handle it worse than others.

Whatever form Neuralink’s products take, there’s no denying the potential of this technology. There are still technical and engineering challenges, but that has never scared off Elon Musk or ambiguous billionaires like him. Human beings already have an innate need to connect with one another. Smartphones, texting, and every other communications tool we’ve ever created reflect that desire.

The market for those tools is already strong. The market for something that can communicate on a more intimate level will likely be even stronger. Even if the ultimate goal of Neuralink is to help humanity interact with an advanced artificial Intelligence, a good first step would be to help improve our ability to interact with one another.

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Neuralink Event: Updates, Insights, And (Big) Implications

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It’s been a while since I’ve talked about Neuralink. There’s a good reason for that. Even though Elon Musk announced the formation of the company back in 2017, there hasn’t been much news, aside from a few cryptic teases. That didn’t stop me from proclaiming it be one of the most important venture of all time and I still stand by that proclamation.

Finally, on July 16, 2019, we got some news from Neuralink that attracted major press coverage. Musk, in an event that was live-streamed, offered some tantalizing details on the state of the company’s research into advanced brain implants. He didn’t announce that they’d perfected it. However, he did make clear that this is not some crazy idea he just scribbled on a cocktail napkin.

The presentation was lengthy and I encourage everyone to check it out. I’m nowhere near as smart, articulate, or successful as Elon Musk. Very few individuals on this planet are. If for no other reason, watch this event to affirm that he’s serious about merging human brains and machines.

If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, here a few key points:

  • The first use of this technology will be to treat brain disorders
  • The company has over $150 million and almost 100 employees
  • It has made significant strides in crafting advanced electrodes that can be implanted in a human brain
  • The current prototype utilizes chips that can process brain signals
  • The prototypes have proven functional with rats and monkeys

These insights are intriguing, but they’re not going to change the world overnight. It’s not like we’ll be able to order our own brain implants from Amazon by the end of the year. This technology is still in its infancy. We’ve only recently developed computer hardware that can communicate with brain cells. We’re a long way off from functioning on the level of the Borg.

What Musk laid out wasn’t just a vision. He offered specifics, citing where we are with the technology and who will initially benefit. It makes sense for those with brain disorders to act as the first beneficiaries. Aside from the difficulty of convincing most people to have something put into their brains, these implants could be invaluable at helping quadriplegics improve their lives.

It’s not an impossible feat, having brains interact directly with machines. It has been successfully done with monkeys. It’s just a matter of testing, refinement, and improvement. Like cell phones and Lasik surgery, which I’ve had done, the technology will improve once it has a foundation to build on.

Now, we got a glimpse of that foundation and there’s plenty of reasons for excitement. While nobody can predict the future, especially not as well as someone like Elon Musk, there are some major implications for the near and distant future.

Just controlling a computer with your brain is not the endgame of this technology. Musk stated clearly in the event that the ultimate goal is to create an intimate, symbiotic relationship between humans and advanced artificial intelligence. He sees it as a necessary relationship if we’re to minimize the existential threat posed by AI.

Before we get to that goal, though, it’s almost a given that this technology will find other uses and markets. One market that wasn’t mentioned in the presentation, but could prove very lucrative, is gaming.

As much as video game technology has advanced since the early days of Nintendo, the controls haven’t evolved much. We still need a keyboard or a controller to interact with the system. As someone whose reflexes were rarely fast enough while playing Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, I can appreciate those limitations more than most.

Imagine an interface where moving a character or a cursor required only your thoughts. Suddenly, you’re no longer restricted to button sequences and analog sticks. The controls only limited by your brain’s ability to give the necessary commands. Whether you’re playing an old Mario game or Grand Theft Auto V, you guide everything along with your thoughts.

Considering the gaming industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, the incentives for innovation are strong. If a brain interface offers novelty or advantages for gaming, then Neuralink is in a position to reap the benefits.

Those same benefits extend beyond the gaming industry. While it may take a while for an implant to process the complex controls of a video game, it might not take as long to create one with the ability to give wielders more direct control of their smartphone. Some may recoil at the thought of being that connected with their smartphone, but the benefits may be too good to pass up.

I can easily imagine an interface that not only helps people type messages faster, but provides better security than passwords, fingerprints, or facial recognition. Hackers might be able to crack a password, but brain signals would pose a far more daunting challenge.

This kind of interface also opens the door to a more intimate forms of communication. It’s one thing to just send texts and emails with our phones. What if we could send codes through brain implants that actually convey feelings and emotions? Instead of emojis, we could just send a coded message from one implant to another that conveys anything from happiness to shock to sarcasm.

That level of communication wouldn’t just be groundbreaking. It would change the way human beings interact. Again, it would be somewhat rudimentary at first, but with refinement, it could open entirely new channels for those who take advantage of this technology.

These are just some of the possibilities. The implications for the distant future are big, but the possibilities for the near future are just as tantalizing. Right now, the near-term goal revolves around helping brains interact with computers. At the moment, those computers are not advanced AIs. When that time comes, though, we’ll at least have a channel for that interaction.

These are exciting times, indeed. This is not just some eccentric billionaire’s crazy vision. This is really happening. There have been many technological advances that have changed our lives, but this technology may ultimately change much more than that.

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How Humanity Will Cure Death

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When it comes to pushing the limits of technology, every goal once started as a fantasy. In the 19th century, the smartest minds of the time thought heavier-than-air flying machines were infeasible at best and impossible at worst. In the early 20th century, other people with legitimate scientific credentials said the same thing about a manned mission to the moon.

While it seems absurd today, at the time it made sense. The people of that era just couldn’t imagine technology advancing to a point where humanity regularly achieved feats that had once been relegated to science fiction. It’s easy it mock them with the benefit of hindsight, but there are plenty of smart people today who have made claims that will be mocked 50 years from now.

One claim that most individuals, including those who work at the forefront of science and research, is that we will never cure death. Science is certainly capable of doing a great deal, but death is one of those immutable barriers that it can never overcome.

We may be able to cure all infectious disease through biotechnology and genetic engineering. We may one day have technology that allows our bodies to become so durable that from the perspective of people alive today, they’ll be superhuman. They may even live for centuries, but never age past 30. Nothing other than a freak accident could kill them. I’ve already noted the potential issues with that.

However, even these highly-enhanced humans will eventually die at some point. That seems like a given. Efforts to avoid it are often subject to heavy criticism, especially approaches like cryonics or uploading your mind into a computer. While some of those criticisms are valid, they’re also short-sighted. They work under the same assumption as those who claimed humans would never walk on the moon.

Technology has limits, but humans have a bad track record with respect to understanding those limits. With respect to curing death, even the most advanced fields of emerging technology seem limited in their ability to help people escape such a fate. That doesn’t mean the concept is flawed. It doesn’t even mean that the technology is beyond the laws of physics.

Personally, I believe death can be cured, but not with approaches like cryonics or bodily enhancements. While those technologies may ultimately extend our lives, being able to transcend death requires another approach. Specifically, it requires a mechanism for preserving, transforming, and transferring the contents of our brains.

Medically speaking, the official definition of death is the irreparable cessation of all brain activity. Your body can be damaged. Every other organ could fail. Your brain is the last link in that chain. It contains your memories, your emotions, your personality, and your capacity to experience the world. To cure death, we simply need to preserve the brain and all its functions.

That’s much harder than it sounds, but it’s not physically impossible. The human brain is not made up of some mythical, exotic material. It’s made up of specialized cells and tissues, like any other organ. While we don’t entirely understand the workings of the brain, it operates using physical matter that is bound by the laws of physics and biology.

Those limits are the key and the mechanism for preserving that complex clump of biomatter already exists, both as a concept and in a very unrefined form. That technology involves nanobots and if there’s one technology that has the potential to make humans truly immortal, it’s this.

The concept of nanobots is already a common staple of science fiction, but it’s primarily used as the technological equivalent of a wizard’s spell. If you need something or someone to do the impossible without resorting to magic, just throw nanobots or nanites, as they’re often called, into the story and let the impossible seem mundane.

While it’s doubtful that nanobots can do everything that science fiction claims, there’s a good chance that they’ll come pretty close. It’s impossible to overstate the potential of nanorobotics. From mass-producing any kind of good to curing humans of all infectious disease, nanobots have the potential to literally and figuratively change our lives, our bodies, and our world.

At the moment, we only have crude prototypes. In time, though, nanobots could become something akin to programmable matter and, by default, programmable flesh. Technically speaking, a nanobot could be programmed to do whatever a typical brain cell does, but more efficiently.

In the late 90s, scientists like Robert Freitas Jr. envisioned nanobots called respirocytes, which functioned like artificial blood cells. In theory, these would be far more effective at getting air and nutrients to the rest of your body, so much so that you could hold your breath for hours or sprint indefinitely.

That’s all well and good for deep sea diving and Olympic sprinters, but for curing death, the concept needs to go even further. That means creating nanobots that mimic the same function as a neuron, but with more efficiency and durability. Create enough of those and you’ve got the exact same hardware and functionality as the brain, but with the utility of a machine.

Once we have that technology refined and perfected, we have everything we need to effectively cure death. Doing so means gradually replacing every neuron in our skulls with a more efficient, more durable nanobot that does everything that neuron did, and then some. The most important additional feature these nanobots would have is a measure of intelligence that could be programmed.

By being programmable, the nanobots in our skulls would be more plastic. It would be less an organ and more a synthetic substrate, of sorts. It could be drained into a container, implanted into a robot specifically designed to contain it, or just preserved indefinitely in the event that there are no bodies available, not unlike the systems used in, “Altered Carbon.”

To some, this still doesn’t count because it requires that every cell in our brains be replaced with something. Technically, that brain wouldn’t be yours and you might not even be use, as a result. I respectfully disagree with this criticism, primarily because it ignores the whole Ship of Theseus argument.

If you’re not familiar with this concept, it’s pretty simple, but the implications are profound. It starts with a real, actual ship used by the mythical hero, Theseus. If, at one point, you replace a piece of wood in that ship, it’s still the same ship. However, the more pieces you replace, the less of the original ship you have. Eventually, if you replace all pieces, is it the same ship?

The human brain, or any organ in your body, is an extreme version of that thought experiment. The brain cells can replicate, but it’s a slower process compared to most cells and the configurations are always changing. The way your brain is wired now is changing as you read this sentence. A cluster of nanobots doing the same thing won’t be any different.

Like the Ship of Theseus, it wouldn’t happen all at once. In principle, the brain cell doesn’t even get destroyed. It just gets subsumed by the mechanizations of the nanobot. How it goes about this is hard to determine, but there’s nothing in the laws of physics that prohibit it. At the molecular level, it’s just one set of atoms replacing another.

Once in place, though, the limits of biology go out the window. With programmable nanobots, a person doesn’t just have the same functionality as a biological brain. It’s has other functions that allow for easier programming. We could, in theory, supplement the nanobots with additional material, sort of like cloud computing. It could even create a neurobiological backup of your brain that could be kept in stasis.

At that point, death is effectively cured. Once your brain becomes a substrate of nanobots, you can just transfer it into a body, a robot, or some other containment vessel that allows it to experience the world in any way desired. If, by chance, that body and the substrate are destroyed or damaged, then the backup kicks in and it’ll be like you just jumped from one place to another.

Some of this relies on an improved understanding of how consciousness works and assumes that it could be somehow transferred, expanded, or transmitted in some way. That may very well be flawed. It may turn out to be the case that, even if you turn your brain into a glob of nanobots, you can’t transmit your consciousness beyond it. If it gets destroyed, you die.

There’s a lot we currently don’t understand about the mechanisms of consciousness, let alone our ability to manipulate those mechanisms. However, a lack of understanding doesn’t negate the possibilities. Our previous inability to understand disease didn’t prevent our ancestors’ ability to treat it to some extent.

If it is the case that we cannot transmit consciousness from our brains, then we can still craft a functional cure for death. It just requires that we put our brains in protective vats from which carry out our existence in a simulated world. Those vats could be protected in a massive artificial planet that’s powered by a black hole or neutron star. In theory, our brains would be preserved until the heat death of the universe.

Whatever the limitations, the technology and the concepts are already in place, if only on paper. It’s difficult to know whether anyone alive today will live long enough to see an advancement like this. Then again, the children alive in 1900 probably didn’t think they would live to see a man walk on the moon.

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Memory Enhancement: The First Killer App For Neuralink?

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Every new technological innovation promises to change the world, but few end up delivering. I still remember the overblown hype in the early 2000s when the Segway Personal Transporter was supposed to revolutionize the world. It was such a big deal that “South Park made an episode about it.

The concept was intriguing, improving mobility for people in a way that was less bulky than a car and less taxing than a bicycle. I think its inventor, Dean Kamen, envisioned a world where the entire urban landscape changed as a result of his invention. I don’t doubt for a second that he believed in that vision.

However, like so many other ambitious inventions, it never came to pass. These days, the only place you’ll see Segways is malls and stadiums. It didn’t revolutionize mobility or transportation. Its use and appeal was just too limited.

Kevin James would argue otherwise.

Compare that to enormous impact of other inventions like smart phones. From the BlackBerry to the first iPhone, these devices have literally changed the world. How they brought about that change varies, but the key factor that set them apart from the Segway was the idea of a “killer app.”

You could argue that smartphones invented the term, but the idea is much older. A killer app isn’t as much an innovation as it is a use that goes onto be so popular that it further advances the technology behind it. Smartphones had many, from cameras to translation applications. As a result, they’re both a multi-billion dollar industry and an integral part of our lives.

Given the current pace of technological change, it’s only a matter of time before another innovation comes along that has a similar impact. That technology might actually exist now, but lack the killer app that will make it both a valuable market and a major part of our lives. One such technology is brain implants this technology has the potential to be even bigger than smartphones.

I’ve mentioned brain implants before. I’m even guilty of hyping it up a little. I’ve gone so far as to call it the most important technological advance in history, citing companies like Neuralink as the arbiters of this monumental change. Since I’m not a scientist and I’m not Elon Musk, it’s very likely I’m overstating many aspects of this technology.

Hype or no hype, brain implant technology is an emerging field. This isn’t a warp drive. This technology actually exists. Like the old brick-sized cell phones of the 1980s, they’re basically prototypes in need of both refinement and a killer application. The refinement is ongoing, but that one application to really further this technology isn’t as clear.

Now, and I apologize if this sounds like more overdone hype, there may be one use that could prove even more useful than a smartphone. That use is memory enhancement. If you don’t think people are willing to risk putting something in their brains to boost their memory, then you’ve clearly never crammed for a Spanish exam for three hours trying to memorize conjugations.

Think back to any situation where you wish your memory didn’t suck. Even if you’re not in school or college, how often do you forget something that no reasonable person should forget? Let’s face it. Most brains aren’t wired with a photographic memory. It’s not that it isn’t useful. There’s just little survival benefit to having one unless you’re a world class scientist or mathematician.

Since photographic memories are so uncommon, and some doubt they even exist to the extent people believe, a specialized brain implant could change all that. Modern neuroscience has a solid understanding of how memories are formed in the brain. In theory, an implant would just augment or expand those functions.

It’s not even entirely a theory. In early 2018, the New York Times reported that a study utilizing brain implants in human test subjects showed a significant improvement in memory function. It was a simple study, but the effect is real.

In the study, the research team determined the precise patterns for each person’s high-functioning state, when memory storage worked well in the brain, and low-functioning mode, when it did not.

The scientists then asked the patients to memorize lists of words and later, after a distraction, to recall as many as they could.

Each participant carried out a variety of tests repeatedly, recalling different words during each test. Some lists were memorized with the brain stimulation system turned on; others were done with it turned off, for comparison.

On average, people did about 15 percent better when the implant was switched on.

While 15 percent may not sound like much, it’s still important because it proves the concept. Like that first bulky cell phone in the 1980s that could barely make a call out of New York City, it shows that this idea does work and can be done with our current tools. It’s just a matter of refining those tools and improving the process.

Those refinements will find a market that is already ripe with people anxious to improve their memory and overall cognitive function. In recent years, the use and abuse of mind-enhancing drugs like Adderall is growing. I can personally attest that this happens.

When I was in college, I knew more than a few students who would do double doses before exams. If you think putting something in your brain is dangerous, then take a moment to appreciate the fact that drugs like Adderall are very similar to methamphetamine. One is available by prescription. The other is the basis of a hit TV show about drug dealing.

There is both a demand and a market for enhancing memory. Unfortunately, that market is dominated by supplements that don’t work and study programs run by convicted fraudsters. Unlike these costly and potentially harmful methods, a brain implant could actually work. It could enhance our memories to a point where we could read a dictionary in Swahili and remember every word.

This doesn’t just mean lost car keys are a thing of the past. This means our entire approach to learning, education, and training completely changes. A lot our modern education system, as well as training for doctors, lawyers, and scientists, relies heavily on memorizing large chunks of information. It takes years of constant and careful study to understand all that information. What happens when that is no longer the case?

Imagine a world where people can learn a new language in the span of a week.

Imagine a world where people can learn complex legal and medical procedures in only months.

Imagine a world where people can learn new software coding in just a few days.

If you’re a sports fan, imagine a world where football players can memorize an entire playbook in just a couple days. What will that do to the NFL Draft?

With a memory enhancing brain implant, it’s not just possible. It’s a potential game-changer. There are so many uses to having a good memory, just as there are so many uses for a smartphone. We had no idea that smartphones would lead to applications like Snapchat or Tinder. I doubt anyone has an idea on the impact that memory-enhancing brain implants will incur.

It won’t happen all at once. It took years for smartphones to become prevalent and unlike smartphones, this advance involves putting something in your brain. Then again, people are perfectly willing to put dangerous chemicals in their bodies to enhance their bodies so I don’t think that’s too great a barrier to overcome.

There are, of course, far greater applications for brain implants beyond acing final exams. I’ve mentioned a few of them, but those applications won’t be possible until the technology becomes a thriving market. For an advance like brain implants, it only takes one app to get the engines of innovation going. Memory enhancement may very well be that app.

It’s just a shame it came too late to help me with my Spanish exam.

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Prison Or Brain Hacking? A Choice That May Shape Our Future

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How does a civilized society deal with its least civilized individuals? This is a question that every society has had to answer, going back to the hunter/gatherer era. We live in an imperfect world full of imperfect individuals. Some are more imperfect than others, so much so that it’s not always possible to reform them into functional members of society.

Most people who commit crimes are not monsters, nor are they sadists who get their joy by torturing the innocent. A vast majority are just people who find themselves in bad situations where they make wrong decisions, exercise poor judgment, or lack impulse control. For these people, fines and brief imprisonment are usually sufficient.

For those who become career criminals, neither respecting the law nor seeking to abide by it, the current system is woefully inadequate. It’s part of the reason why criminal justice reform has become a hot topic. We’re finally learning that throwing people into prisons where they’re dehumanized, degraded, and tortured doesn’t help them become productive members of society. Go figure.

There’s plenty of room for improvement. Some countries have demonstrated that there are more effective, more humane ways to treat criminals. However, even those systems have their limits. As long as human beings remain an imperfect species, we’ll still have to deal with these deviant, violent, and inherently dangerous individuals.

For the moment, our options for dealing with these people are few. It primarily involves incarceration or intense therapy, often coupled with drug therapy. While this can be helpful to some, there are severe limitations. Some individuals don’t even want treatment and even those who are caught don’t always respond.

With that in mind, allow me to present a not-quite-hypothetical scenario. What if, instead of prison or therapy, we gave offending criminals an option to undergo an invasive treatment that affects the primary source of their deviant behavior in the brain? Jail is still an option for those who aren’t keen on messing with their brain wiring, but for certain people, an alternative is an alternative.

What I just described is one of those concepts in which the science is there, but the technology and the courts haven’t caught up to it. I know whenever I talk about emerging technology, be it sex robots or artificial wombs, I venture pretty far into speculation territory. Some of these advances rely on science and tools that don’t yet exist. This isn’t one of those cases.

In July 2018, the Journal of Neuroscience published a study revealing that targeted stimulation of the prefrontal cortex reduced aggressive tendencies in test subjects. Before you start getting fever dreams of mad scientists strapping people to gurneys and sticking wires in their ears, you can rest easy. This isn’t the kind of electroshock treatment that find their way into one too many horror movies.

These treatments have ground-breaking implications. They prove that it’s possible to temper or mitigate certain behaviors in people. The study doesn’t specify the limits of the effects or if it can be applied to something other than aggressive behaviors. It’s still a proof of concept and one that could compound the impact of other emerging technologies.

We already have tools like CRISPR that allow us to tweak our genes. We also have companies like Neuralink that are actively working on implants that could fix, augment, or expand our brain capacity. While men like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil often discuss these advances within the context of keeping humanity on pace with artificial intelligence, there will likely be some interim uses for these technologies.

Tempering violent behavior in people with significant cognitive impairments is just one possible use, but one that has the potential to change how we think about crime and punishment. Think back to those people I mentioned earlier who just inherently violent. They can’t manage their emotions or control their anger. They don’t think before they act and some don’t even feel guilty about what they do.

Like it or not, these people exist. I’ve known people in my life who have terrible impulse control and fly into a rage over the smallest things. Some of those people have had issues with the law and I often see in them a sense of never-ending frustration. Many don’t like that they have these issues. A few have tried to get help, but it doesn’t always work.

I suspect that if some of those people were given a chance to treat their tendencies with targeted shock therapy or a brain implant, they would jump at the chance. Deviant tendencies aside, they seek some level of function in their lives. If tweaking their brain is the difference between prison and freedom, then they’ll take that risk.

Turning people who might have been unrepentant psychopaths into productive, non-violent members of society is an objective good. The technology to do just that is not that far off and more study could help us refine the process, so much so that prison might be less necessary in certain cases. Given how expensive it is to imprison people, it’s an alternative worth pursuing.

Along with that undeniable good, however, there are plenty of potential dangers. Anyone who has ever seen one too many psychological thrillers or just read “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” can easily imagine how this kind of technology could be abused.

Tempering someone’s violent behaviors is all well and good, but why would it stop there? The brain is capable of all sorts of behaviors, deviant and otherwise. Say a society determines that other non-violent behaviors, be it sexual promiscuity or binge-watching Netflix for too many hours, are not socially desirable. What’s to stop them from imposing this on their citizens?

Some countries probably already fantasize about technologies that enable them to directly pacify their citizens, rendering them weak, passive, and easily manipulated. In his famous novel, “1984,” George Orwell called these people proles. However, in the book, the deviants had to be tortured and re-educated. If Big Brother had access to this technology, it would be a simple medical procedure.

That has plenty of terrifying possibilities for abuse. What if someone uses brain stimulation to prevent people from having homosexual urges? What if someone uses it to treat those who identify as transgender? There’s no evidence that the techniques in the study would work on that, but there’s no evidence to say it’s impossible.

Its use will definitely be controversial. That much, I’m certain of. It’s not advanced enough to become a legitimate treatment for anything. At the moment, direct brain stimulation is utilized for a specified set of conditions and it’s often a last resort. Using it on healthy people who just want to cull their violent urges is uncharted territory.

Whether it enters the picture for criminal justice reform is anyone’s guess, but if the process works, someone who has dealt with one too many repeat offenders will try to use it. From there, the precedent will be set. It’s hard to say what form it’ll take, but it’ll take society into uncharted territory with respect to controlling our minds.

Perhaps, at first, the process would be voluntary and only be presented in conjunction with jail or some other treatment. It’s also possible that the courts will determine a strict set of criteria for when the state could force this treatment onto someone. There are probably a few repressive governments who would try to use this on an industrial scale. I won’t say they’re names, but most people know who they are.

Like any emerging technology, there are risks and rewards worth considering. We stand to benefit greatly by having a society with as few violent individuals as possible. We also stand to lose a great deal if we allow misguided authority figures to determine how we use this technology.

I’m not qualified to determine whether or not someone should have their brain hacked. I don’t know that anyone is. However, I also don’t deny that the human brain, as magnificent as it is, has plenty of flaws. We should go about fixing those flaws, especially in people who are disproportionately impacted by them. We just have to be very careful about how we manage it.

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How Advanced AI Will Create Figurative (And Literal) Magic

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If you went back 50 years and showed someone your smartphone, chances are they would be amazed. To them, such technology would seem downright alien. However, they probably wouldn’t think it was magic. Go back 500 years, though, and chances are they will think a smartphone is magic, miraculous, or a tool of the devil.

Just look at what a smartphone does and compare it to the magic of old. You can ask it a question and, depending on how well-worded it is, it’ll give you an answer. If you ask it to make food, clothes, or tools appear, it’ll make that happen too. Thanks to services like Amazon and Grubhub, this isn’t magic to most people. In fact, it’s downright mundane.

Granted, these things won’t appear instantly out of thin air, but depending on your willingness to pay for quicker shipping, it will get there. By medieval standards, that’s basically sorcery.

You don’t have too far back in time to appreciate the magic of modern technology. Most of us don’t understand how it works. We don’t know what makes the screens on our phones light up when we push a button or how our car moves when we press the accelerator. We understand that there’s science behind it and it’s not magic. It just feels like it from a certain perspective.

Famed science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, once said that magic is just science we don’t understand. It was one of the three laws he used in contemplating the future. Time and a host of amazing advances have proven the validity of this sentiment. We’ve created materials once thought to be impossible. We’ve uncovered phenomenon that seem to undermine our understanding of physics.

This is to be expected because our understanding of the universe is incomplete. We have some pretty solid theories so far, but there’s still a lot we don’t understand. As we learn more, some of the things we discover may seem magical. Even in a world that is more educated than it has been at any point in human history, there may still be forces that our primate brains just can’t make sense of.

To some extent, it helps that humanity is making these discoveries through their collective effort. It helps us accept a seemingly-impossible idea if it comes from a member of the same species. What happens, though, when we gain knowledge from something that is both not human and many times smarter than the entire human race? Will it seem like magic to us?

I argue that it would. I would also argue that we’ll be seeing this kind of magic sooner than you think. It won’t come from some enigmatic sorcerer with a thick beard, a white robe, and an uncanny resemblance to Ian McKellen. It’ll likely come from the world of advanced artificial intelligence.

In the past, whenever I’ve talked about advanced artificial intelligence, I’ve focused on its potential to fundamentally change our civilization and what it means to be human. I haven’t touched on how it might work, mostly because I’m not nearly smart enough to make sense of it. However, that gives me more in common with the experts than you think.

In the emerging, but rapidly growing field, of artificial intelligence, there’s a strange phenomenon known as black box AI. Simply put, this when we understand the data that goes in and comes out of an AI system. We just don’t know how it went about processing that data. It’s like putting a slab of meat in an oven, pressing a button, and getting a Big Mac without knowing how it was made.

It’s not quite magic, but it’s a manifestation of Arthur C. Clarke’s ideas on science and magic. AI systems today are advancing at a pace that we can’t hope to keep up with. We already have systems that can surpass any human in terms of Jeopardy, chess, and Go. We don’t yet have a system that has the same intellectual capacity of an adult human, but most experts believe we’re well on our way to achieving that.

When that day comes, we may very well have an AI that does more than just process data in ways we don’t understand. Once an AI is capable of matching or exceeding the intellectual capacity of an average human, then it’s likely the black box phenomenon will become more pronounced.

Imagine, for a moment, we had an AI that was smarter than even the smartest human beings on the planet. We go to that AI, we feed it every gigabyte of data we have on human biology, and ask it to surmise a cure for cancer. It takes only a few seconds to process all that data. Then, it spits out the formula for something that has eluded generations of doctors with ease.

We don’t know what form it may take. We may not even fully understand the components of it. However, it still works. From our perspective, it’s akin to a magical healing elixir straight from the world of Tolkein. We assume there’s some sort of science behind it, but we’re utterly baffled by the specifics. We just know it works.

It goes beyond medicine, as well. With an even more advanced AI, we could feed it every one of our most advanced theories about physics, biology, chemistry, and cosmology. We could then ask it to fill in all the gaps. Again, it gives us an answer and suddenly, we have a Theory of Everything.

We probably won’t understand the details. We may find out that we were dead wrong about particle physics, cosmology, or why our cell phone can’t hold a decent charge anymore. The knowledge such a system gives us could end up being so advanced that we literally do not have the intellectual capacity to understand it. It would be like an ant trying to do calculus.

In the same way a magnifying glass must seem like magic to an ant, the knowledge an advanced AI gives us may seem just as extraordinary. That’s especially true if we give that AI access to a 3D printer, a molecular assembler, or anything it could use to actually craft something.

That could be especially dangerous. For all we know, a sufficiently advanced AI could take a stack of dirty dishes and turn it into a nuclear bomb. We would have no idea how it would work. It would, for all intents and purposes, seem like magic to us. This thing would be doing something that our brains and senses tell us is impossible.

As the AI gets more advanced, it’s abilities and feats become more magical. At that point, it’ll be harder to accept that what it does counts as science. These advances are no longer coming from the efforts of people. They’re coming from a machine that’s millions, if not billions, of times smarter than any ordinary human could ever hope to be. How could it not magical from that perspective?

Throughout human history, sane and competent people have believed in magical things. Not long ago, people believed they could talk to the dead. Sir Isaac Newton believed in alchemy. Alfred Russel Wallace believed in literal spirits. Despite these beliefs, there was an important context to all these perspectives.

They emerged out of our collective ignorance of the world around us. We had nothing but our brains and our senses to make sense of it all. Since both can be easily fooled, as any competent street magician will attest, it doesn’t take much to get people to assume magic. An artificial intelligence would circumvent that context because it has something better than magic.

An advanced AI is not bound by the same senses that constantly fool ordinary humans. It doesn’t even have to misdirect or trick us. It only has to show us ideas and concepts that are completely real, but totally incomprehensible. The entire human race could spend a million years trying to understand it and it still wouldn’t be enough. It would still seem like magic to us.

That notion seems scary on paper and more than a few people have voiced concerns about this. However, all that magical thinking will only occur if our human brains remain unchanged and unenhanced. That’s not likely to be the case. Between the emergence of neural implants and the ongoing development of brain/machine interface, we’ll find a way to keep up with AI. If we want to survive as a species, we’ll have to.

Even if we do somehow keep up, there may still be aspects of advanced AI that seem like magic to us. That may always be the case, so long as we retain part of our caveman brains. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. No matter how smart or advanced we get, it helps to see a little magic in the world. With advanced AI, though, the rules for magic are bound to change, among many other things.

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The (Distant) Future Of Marvel, Disney, And Entertainment

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I like to talk about the future. I don’t claim to have any special insight, but I suspect I give it more thought than most. I also believe I tend to think farther into the future than most. Whether it’s contemplating the future of how we’ll organize our society or how our sex lives will evolve, I try to contemplate possibilities beyond the next iPhone upgrade.

One aspect of the distant future that concerns me has to do with boredom, namely how it may become a much larger problem and how we’ll go about alleviating it. I’ve done plenty to argue that boredom can be a dangerous force, from creating immortal super-villains to subverting the very concept of Hell. If our future is to be stable, prosperous, and fun, we’ll need some form of entertainment.

With that critical goal in mind, I’d like to speculate on a potential brand of future entertainment that ties directly with the industry that we know today. Specifically, I’d like to imagine how big entertainment companies like Disney will continue to function in world where advanced artificial intelligence, brain implants, and near-universal access to the internet is a thing.

I feel the time is right to think about such things because just last week, Disney radically altered the entertainment industry by purchasing Fox. Beyond just getting the X-men and Fantastic Four rights back for Marvel, Disney bought a massive library of intellectual property that is potentially worth billions. Being a successful business with shareholders, and all, they’re going to want to make billions more.

How exactly are they going to go about that, though? That’s a question worth asking because the answer for the near future is probably not going to work for the distant future. Sure, Disney will probably rake in plenty of profits at the box office, just as they’ve done with Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars. However, the movie and toy industry can only go so far.

While box office revenue is up, actual ticket sales are way down. More people are opting to stream their content directly, bypassing pay TV and theaters entirely. The same is true for print media, including comic books. Even toy sales are in decline. This is not good for a company like Disney, which has built its empire on media and merchandise.

That’s not to say things are dire. Disney has been around for almost 100 years. In that time, it has adapted through plenty of upheavals. If it’s going to survive another 100 years, though, it’ll have to adapt to a radically different landscape. Buying Fox is likely part of that process. Disney has already made clear that it plans to start a streaming service to compete with Netflix and Amazon.

That’s a good start, but a streaming service is probably not going to be enough, especially in a future where people live longer, work less, and can share more than just text messages with one another. If Disney wants to continue being at the forefront of entertainment, it’ll have to innovate in ways that leverage future technology in new ways.

After the purchase of Fox, though, Disney may actually be in the best possible position compared to every other entertainment company that exists today. That’s because, unlike its competitors, it has a wealth of intellectual property that it owns outright. From Micky Mouse to Marvel heroes, the library of Disney-owned characters is truly staggering.

In the past, this gave Disney the ability to make or license movies, toys, and games for billions. In the future, those mediums won’t be nearly as profitable, but not because those things will fall out of style. I believe that for Disney to make more billions, it’ll utilize its intellectual property in a very different way, one that will likely require an entirely new approach to entertainment.

Think, for a moment, about the current experience you get from a movie theater, a TV show, or even a life show. You sit in a seat and you just watch. You take in the sights and sounds. If done right, it creates a spectacle that you enjoy. However, the fact that the spectacle only utilizes major senses is somewhat limiting.

What if, instead, you weren’t just an audience member sitting in a seat? What if it actually felt like you were there? What if you felt like you were standing next to Captain America as he battled the Red Skull? What if you felt like you were there when Micky Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy all broke out into a joyous musical number?

I’m not just talking about better animation or virtual reality. I’m talking about a form of entertainment that makes your brain actually feel as though you’re experiencing something. It’s not quite like the holodeck on “Star Trek.” It’s more like plugging into “The Matrix,” but for reasons other than learning Kung Fu or having existential breakdowns.

Unlike “The Matrix,” though, you wouldn’t be the catalyst for the story. That’s something Disney would take care of, providing only the world and the vast array of sensations that come with it. Instead of paying for a movie ticket, you pay for an experience that lets you interact or feel part of a story involving Iron Man, Micky, or Buzz Lightyear.

That will likely be the most valuable resource of future entertainment, powerful experiences that give customers the rush and fulfillment of being there. Instead of going to a theater or theme park, they would just plug something into their brains, possibly through an implant like the ones Elon Musk is developing with Neuralink. From there, the experience will be directly streamed right into their brain.

It may sound invasive, but we already share so much of ourselves online, from what we had for lunch to the most intimate aspects of our personal lives. We’re already in the early stages of merging our technology. We already see our smartphones as integral parts of our lives. Why wouldn’t we do the same for brain implants?

Unlike a smartphone, a machine/brain interface can’t be dropped into the toilet or left behind by accident. That same interface won’t just augment the ability of our brains to access the entire wealth of human knowledge. They’ll allow us to directly stimulate the areas that forge our entire perception of the world around us.

This has huge implications, some more profound than others. For companies like Disney, though, that link will be critical with respect to maintaining its place as a dominant entertainment company. People already pay for powerful experience, be they movies, video games, or a full-body massage at a spa. Disney could simply cut out the middle-men while leveraging its vast library of intellectual property.

Sure, in the future, you could probably pay for fancy experiences like those offered in “Total Recall.” However, if you want an experience that allows you to be a Jedi, an Avenger, or a singing animal, you’ll have to go through Disney and they’ll be happy to sell you that experience for a price.

Every week, you’ll be able to select from a range of intense experiences the same way you navigate your Netflix queue. For some, you don’t need to leave your bed. You just plug a device into your brain and let it go from there. For others, maybe you travel to special venues that function like the holodecks in “Star Trek.” There, you could share the experience with others, making it a communal experience.

Disney would still likely need content-creators to craft those experiences. That means people like George Lucas and Kevin Feige will still have a job in this future. The particulars of those jobs would be very different, but the goal would be the same. They would create experiences and stories that people are willing to pay for.

As unpredictable as the future is, it’s still safe to assume that people are going to want entertainment. Wherever there’s a want, there will be a business willing to provide it. There will be competition. There will be billions, if not trillions, to be made in profits. Not every company around today will survive that competition. Disney, however, is already in the best possible position to thrive.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, media issues, movies, Sexy Future, War on Boredom