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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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How Superhero Movies Are Preparing Us For The Future Of Human Enhancement

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As a kid growing up on a healthy diet of superhero comics, video games, and superhero-themed cartoons that were very much ahead of their time on social issues, I often daydreamed about how awesome it would be to have the same powers as my favorite heroes. As an adult, I still daydream every now and then, often when I’m tired, frustrated, or stuck in traffic.

A major component in the overall appeal of the superhero genre is the wish fulfillment fantasy it embodies. Captain America represents the peak of physical conditioning. Iron Man represents the peak of technological know-how. Superman represents the peak of pretty much every possible feat we can imagine, a few of which are even impossible.

It’s a common fantasy of anyone who ever struggled in gym class or couldn’t open a can of pickles. It is, after all, those moments of struggle that remind us of just how limited we are, as humans. Our bodies are remarkable in so many ways, but they’re still frustratingly frail.

That status, however, may very well change. Unlike every other point in the approximately 200,000 year history of the human species, we’re actively working to transcend the limits of evolution through advances in biotechnology, advances in the treatment of disease, and even the integration of cybernetics into our brains and even our genitals.

Some of these advances are closer than others. Chances are that most people alive today won’t live to see the day when they can shape-shift at will like Mystique or fly around like Iron Man in mech suits designed by Elon Musk’s descendants. However, there may be young children alive today who will live long enough to see such wonders.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. There are people out there much smarter than me who believes that the first functionally immortal person is already alive today. They still might be in diapers, but there is a real chance that by the time they’re as old as I am, they’ll live in a world where things like aging, disease, and not being able to run 13 miles in 30 minutes like Captain America is a thing of the past.

A lot has already changed in the time I’ve been alive. I still remember a time when the idea of computers that could fit into your pocket was seen as too futuristic for some people. It was seen as just a fancy gadget from Star Trek. Given that kind of change, it’s hard to imagine what the next several decades holds for the future of humanity.

That’s where superhero media is helping in unexpected ways, though. To some extent, the modern superhero media of today is doing the same thing “Star Trek” did for previous generations. It doesn’t present a fanciful world where big green men can smash monsters or where a sickly young army recruit can be instantly transformed into the ultimate soldier. It offers a tantalizing vision of what the future could be.

It’s a vision that I believe got muddied between the end of the early “Star Trek” era and rise of modern superhero movies that began with “X-men,” “Iron Man,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” Within that gap, events like Watergate, the the Vietnam War, and the rise of less optimistic, much more cynical generations made it very difficult to look forward to a better future.

Modern superhero movies have not eliminated that cynicism, but I believe it has helped tempered it. Optimism, as a whole, is actually on the rise. As bad as some recent headlines have been, some being downright disturbing, there is an increasing sense that the future is not all doom and gloom. We still dare to daydream about a better tomorrow.

More recent superhero movies, especially those that began with “Iron Man” and the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, aren’t nearly as fanciful as the old Richard Donner “Superman” movies. They’re not as gritty as Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies either. In a sense, this health balance has presented audiences with a world that still feels fanciful, but is also full of possibilities.

The idea that we can use science and biotechnology to turn someone who was once weak and sickly into the pinnacle of strength is not just a product of Jack Kirby’s legendary imagination. There are people working on that as I write this. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we may one day enhance ourselves to the same level as Captain America.

Chances are we won’t even stop there. As I noted earlier, the human body has a lot of flaws. Also, thanks to the painfully slow progress of evolution, it hasn’t been upgraded in over 100,000 years. From our biology’s perspective, we’re still cavemen roaming the African Savannah with spears and rocks. Our bodies need upgrades, especially if we’re to become a space-faring species like the ones in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Some of those upgrades will come sooner than others. The end result, though, will be something far greater than even Captain America’s abilities. Some of those abilities seem impossible now. Remember, though, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of computers in our pockets seemed just as impossible.

This is where, I believe, modern superhero movies are doing a much greater service than just entertaining the masses and making billions of dollars for Disney. Through heroes like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and even “Ant Man,” these movies make the case that such enhancements can do more than just fight invading aliens.

These movies can also help make the case that humanity can use these advancements to become better, as a whole. Characters like Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Scott Lang, and Peter Parker all have the opportunities to be both destructive and productive with their enhanced abilities. At times, they even lapse into destructive tendencies, as we saw with Tony in “Iron Man 3.”

In the end, though, these characters use those enhanced abilities to do good for the world. They’re still human and they still have human flaws, which they don’t even try to hide. However, even with these flaws, they still feel inclined to do good, heroic things with their abilities.

That doesn’t just make for a good superhero narrative. It sends the message that we, as a species, can aspire to do so much good with the advances the future brings. There are still plenty of dangers, both with existing technology and with emerging technologies. The essence of the superhero narrative, though, tells us that we can confront those dangers and come out of it better than before.

That’s an important mentality to have as we move into an era where human enhancement is both possible and common. By believing we can use it to pursue the same heroics as the superheroes in movies like “The Avengers,” we give our species the push it needs to advance in a way that brings out the best in us.

There will still be villains along the way, as plenty of superhero movies show. The fact we still root for the heroes, though, helps reveal where our aspirations reside. With these movies effecting an entire generation of young people, I believe modern superhero movies are doing plenty to prepare them for the future of human enhancement.

With the staggering success of “Avengers: Infinity War,” a movie that has raised the bar for superhero movies of all kinds, the impact of superhero media has never been greater. That impact may very well be the key to preparing the next generation for unprecedented advancements in technology, society, and progress. That, to some extent, might end up being the most heroic thing this genre can do.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, futurism, human nature, Sexy Future