Our senses have evolved to capture certain parts of our ambient and evolution has been biased by the ambient we have been living in. As an example, our retina is more sensitive to green (plenty of green around in places where we started our human journey). Our sight can convert a tiny range of the electromagnetic spectrum (the one between 380 and 740 nm). We do not perceive infrared (snakes do) nor ultraviolet (bees do). However, we have technology that can sense a very broad range of the electromagnetic spectrum (broader than any living thing) and we could use that technology to extend our senses, as we already do with infrared goggle (detecting longer wavelength) or night goggle (increasing the sensitivity). Rather than using goggles we could have seamless contact lenses to capture the desired range of wavelengths and convert them into visible ones. There have been, and there are, several researches to create electronic contact lenses that can serve as seamless interaces, the last one announced is the one from Google (watch the clip).
Likewise, a computer could highjack one (or more) of our sense to communicate with the brain. Of course, this is exactly what computers do by creating images, sounds, haptic forces that are picked up by our senses. This, however, may be done in a seamless way with more advanced technology (that is the point here), like using electronic contact lenses, ear implants, fingertips implants.
This communication, however, is limited by the capability of our senses to process the signal.
Neural pathways highjack
A work around to this limitation would be to use implants that connects directly with the nervous pathways, something that we do today to overcome a sensorial disability. As an example, retinal implants are restoring a (minimal) sight to hundreds of people with retinitis pigmentosa today. The implant skips the retina and directly connects to the optic nerve. Similarly, there are many cochlear implants restoring hearing to people with a broken tympanum.
The implant procedures are still cumbersome and the technology is far from perfect. In the future, we can rest assured that technology will get better to the point that it can be used not just to restore a lost function but to complement existing functions, augmenting them. One of the potential augmentation is to provide a seamless interface to a computer and to the ambient.
We are nowhere near to that, my estimate is that it will take at least two decades of technology evolution but the constant drive to create technology overcoming disability on the one hand, and using technology in niches (including the big one of military application) where it can provide a strong competitive advantage, will make this happen.
For sure, it looks much more feasible to highjack a neural pathway then to have implants in the brain. These latter will continue to evolve but I doubt they will be used as “interfaces”, rather as way of affecting the whole (or a whole area of the) brain to condition macro phenomena, like he insurgence of an epileptic attack, increasing memory retention, counteracting Parkinson tremor and so on.
An intermediate step is already taking place, through the use of augmented (and virtual/mixed) reality technology, a topic being addressed in the FDC Digital Reality Initiative. Notice that today AR/VR/XR are basically forms of linearly-advanced interfaces but once the technology will support a truly seamless interaction (through some form of non-intrusive wearable or implants) then our communications with the ambient will change radically. In the next and last post of this series I am going to look at that.