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Disruptive Technologies in human augmentation impacting beyond 2040 IV

Data upload to the brain (and from the brain)

The modelling of the body is getting more and more accurate and researchers are now focussing on the brain both to replicate it in the cyberspace and to influence it from the cyberspace, eventually backing up the brain and uploading data in the brain. Image credit: Kernel

The Imperial College Foresight study includes Data upload to the brain as a disruptive technology that might happen in the 2040 timeframe. This is part of a more general evolution seeing the mirroring of a person, and a person brain, in the cyberspace, part of which is already taking place today (digital twin).

The mirroring is actually involving two aspects, related one to the other: the copying of the person into a model, living in the cyberspace, -and keeping it in synch with the person-, and the enacting of desired evolution of the person by uploading data/stimulate activities from the cyberspace to the person. An obvious, and already possible, instance would be to upload instruction to a device/prosthetic embedded in the body, like an insulin pump, to increase its performances or to adapt to a changed situation. A much more tricky one would be to influence the brain uploading knowledge or/and changing their functional processing. Notice that even in this latter case there are studies and trials going on, with electrodes that can stop an epileptic attack detected by analysing the electrical activity in the brain.

It is important to notice that there is a continuum between a complete separation of a person from its environment and a complete symbioses. What we are talking about is an evolution towards a more and more complete, and effective, symbioses.  Sounds and colours, as an example, have been demonstrated to have an impact on the brain and in some pathologies that might activate an abnormal reaction or prevent it. Moving from this to using ambient sensors (like a video camera) is a small step towards an increased interaction, moving on to having contact sensors, like a wrist band or a head band providing more accurate detection in another step, embedding sensors and actuators in the body is a further step, using optogenetics to activate specific neuronal circuits goes even further, changing genes in neurones … You get the trend.

The symbioses can be the result of manipulation of a person and or the increase functionality of an “interconnected” machine. In the long term it is likely to be both, as discussed in the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE FDC.

There are companies working in these areas. The 2045 Initiative is looking at the broad impact of artificial intelligence, an intelligence that includes the symbiosis with our intelligence and foresee the possibility to upload our brain in the cyberspace where it can live “forever”. Notice that it is not just about “me” living in the cyberspace forever, it is about maintaining relationships alive once the atomic part of me dissolves. My friends will have the opportunity of talking to me, the “me” in the cyberspace, as they do today when using a social network. With the Turing test passed, there is no way we can tell if on the other side of the interface to the cyberspace there is a real person or a computer (an artificial intelligence), and if that interacting entity in the cyberspace is a copy of me, has my experience, my knowledge, my quirks, … well then you would have no way of telling the difference.

This alter ego in the cyberspace will diverge over time from the real “me” since it will be exposed to interactions, experiences, I will no longer have, but if the real me is no longer existing it does not even make sense to talk about a divergence. It will still be me, just an older and more experienced me.

The brain uploading is clearly opening up completely new spaces, bringing along unexpected societal and ethical issues. What about a cyber-me that through interaction in the cyberspace will cause damage to another entity, be it virtual or real? Would the “state” punish the digital me? How? Will my digital me condemned to “death”, to be erased from the cyberspace? Aha! You cannot erase my digital me, you might erase one copy but my digital me could be so smart to clone itself in the billions and hide its self in many ways to go undetected!  These are just a few examples to point out the amazing new space we are opening up. Remember that there is no black and white, but plenty of grey and some of this is already happening today: to create your digital self today try Replika.

Kernel, a startup founded by neuroscientists and engineers from top US universities, is looking at technologies to access, read AND write the brain. DARPA has awarded in 2017 the University of Berkeley with a 21.6 million $ fund to develop technologies for reading and writing the brain…

All these efforts will clearly result in significant progress over the coming two decades. As I said the idea of uploading data to the brain as if it were a computer (for sure it is not just a storage device!) is most unlikely, I would say still in the realm of science fiction. However, the possibility of a stronger symbiotic relationship with the cyberspace is surely on the map.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.