Computational neuroscientist Anders Sanberg is a senior research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute where he explores the ethics of future human enhancement through AI, genetic engineering, and brain implants. IEEE Spectrum's Eliza Strickland interviewed Sanberg about the ethics of augmenting your wetware with neurotech:
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Spectrum: Do you worry that neurotech brain enhancements will only be available to the wealthy, and will increase the disparities between the haves and have-nots?
Sandberg: I’m not too worried about it. If the enhancement it is in the form of a device or pill, those things typically come down in price exponentially. We don’t have to worry so much about them being too expensive for the mass market. It’s more of a concern if there is a lot of service required—if you have to go to a special place and get your brain massaged, or you have to take a few weeks off work for training, the prices for those services won’t come down because they’re based on salaries.
The real question is, how much benefit do you get from being enhanced? You have to consider positional benefits versus absolute benefits. For example, being tall is positionally good for men, tall men tend to get ahead in work and have better life outcomes. But if everyone becomes taller, no one is taller. You only get the benefit if you’re taller than everyone else. Many people who are against enhancement use this argument: Enhancement leads to this crazy race and we’re all worse off.
Spectrum: So even if a cognition-enhancing device became available, you don’t think everyone should get one?
Most of us need a computer interface implanted in our brains like we need a hole in our head. That said, there are benefits to bridging the gap between mind and machine. Joel Murphy is the founder of OpenBCI, an inexpensive, and non-invasive, brain-computer interface (BCI) platform. People have used OpenBCI to control robots, compose music by thinking about it, develop games, and help individuals who are "locked in" and can't control their bodies communicate with the outside world. Mark Frauenfelder and I interviewed Joel about open source, DIY neurotech in this episode of For Future Reference, a new podcast from Institute for the Future:
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This Friday through Sunday in San Francisco, my extreme maker pals Kal Spelletich (Survival Research Labs, Seemen) and Mitch Altman (Noisebridge, TV-B-Gone) invite you to what's sure to be a mind-bending experience of neuro-robotic weirdness and art at The Lab
. From the description of the installation:
Split-Brain Robotics: Harvesting Brain Data for Robotic Mayhem and Enlightenment
An interactive audience participatory performance with two custom built 16’ tall robots, each identical, each controlled by the left and right side brainwaves of audience participants.
A hacked and customized brainwave monitor reads audience participants' right side and left side brainwaves to make the two robots move, collaborate, interact, fight, and even "kiss". Their live streaming brain data runs the two robots! Volunteers’ (your!) thoughts are brought to life through robotic actions.
When they do “correctly” interact, symbolic and metaphoric events will happen, activating, lasers, lights, fog, robotic eye views projections, sounds, chaos.
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A team of Israeli scientists devised a system by which a person can use their thoughts alone to trigger tiny DNA-based nanorobots inside a living creature to release a drug.
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For more than a decade, University of Southern California neuro-engineer Theodore Berger has been working on an artificial hippocampus, an electronic aid for the part of the brain that scientists believe
encodes experiences as long-term memories. Now Berger and a new startup called Kernel are confident that the device is ready for prime time.
"We’re testing it in humans now, and getting good initial results,” Berger told IEEE Spectrum. “We’re going to go forward with the goal of commercializing this prosthesis.”
In Berger’s approach, electrodes in the hippocampus first record electrical signals from certain neurons as they learn something new and encode the memory. These electrical signals are the result of neurons “firing” in specific patterns. Berger studied how electrical signals associated with learning are translated into signals associated with storing that information in long-term memory. Then his lab built mathematical models that take any input (learning) signal, and produce the proper output (memory) signal.
An implant could help someone whose hippocampus doesn't properly turn information into memories.
An implanted memory prosthetic would have electrodes to record signals during learning, a microprocessor to do the computations, and electrodes that stimulate neurons to encode the information as a memory.
For people who have difficulty forming lasting memories on their own, the prosthetic would provide a boost. “We take these memory codes, enhance them, and put them back into the brain,” Berger says. “If we can do that consistently, then we’ll be ready to go.”
"New Startup Aims to Commercialize a Brain Prosthetic to Improve Memory" (IEEE Spectrum) Read the rest
Over at Backchannel, I wrote about how brain tech could transform how we work in the future, from displays that react to our mental state to offices that respond to our brainwaves.
Stanford and University of California neuroscientist Melina Uncapher is currently leading a pilot study with a large technology company to use mobile EEG tracking to study how the office environment — from lighting to natural views to noise levels — impacts the brain, cognition, productivity, and wellness of workers. Prepping a room for a big brainstorm? Maybe it’s time to change the light color.
“If you want to encourage abstract thinking and creative ideas, do you pump in more oxygen or less?” says Uncapher, a fellow at Institute for the Future. “Do you raise the ceiling height? Do you make sure you have a view of the natural environment, simulated or real? And if you want people to be more heads-down, is it better for them to be in a room with a lower ceiling?”
The goal, she explains, would be to develop a “quantified environment” that you could precisely tune to different types of working modes.
"Our Highest Selves?" (Backchannel)
(Illustration by Anna Vignet)
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