Elon Musk recently added a new twist to his vision for tech-related accomplishments by saying he was interested in creating a “neural lace.”
For a little background, science fiction author Iain M. Banks first coined the term “neural lace” in The Culture series. In these novels, people living on another planet installed genetically engineered glands in their brains capable of secreting stimulants, psychedelics and sedatives whenever they wanted them.
Last year, researchers from Harvard and the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing managed to create a working neural lace prototype. They figured out a way to inject a tiny electronic mesh sensor into the brain of a mouse that fully integrates with cerebral matter that enabled computers to monitor brain activity.
Using a syringe, the mesh was injected into the mouse brain where the material expanded to 30 times its original size. Once inside, the mouse brain cells grew around the mesh, forming connections with the wires in the flexible mesh circuit. Unlike most implants, the mouse brain completely accepted the mechanical component and assimilated with it without any damage being caused to the mouse.
To show how this type of technology could be applied to humans, we currently use electric shock treatment for patients suffering from severe muscle spasms. While this approach is only used in worst-case scenarios, it uses long wires that are inserted deep into the brain, risking long-term brain injury with every insertion.
If a neural lace is able to completely integrate with the human brain, this would enable doctors to treat all sorts of neurodegenerative diseases that are currently difficult to cure. But that is only a small piece of a much bigger opportunity here.
Even though we can only speculate on the full potential, it should eventually be possible to master brain-to-brain communications, record visual inputs, control sleep patterns, instantly reset our emotional disposition, adjust our own chemical-brain balance, and intellectually do brain-searches of the Internet.
Information at the Speed of Need
The distance between information and our brain is getting shorter.
Twenty years ago if you had access to a large information center, such as the Library of Congress, and someone asked you a series of questions, your task would have been to pour through the racks of books to come up with the answers. The time involved could have easily added up to 10 hours per question.
Today, if we are faced with uncovering answers from a digital Library of Congress, using keyboards and computer screens, the time-to-answer process has been reduced to as little as 10 minutes.
The next iteration of interface design will give us the power to find answers in as little as 10 seconds. That’s where neural lace technology comes into play.
The ease and fluidity of our information-to-brain interface will have a profound effect on everything from education, to the way we conduct business, to the way we function as a society.
After we achieve a 10-second interface, we’ll immediately set our sights on the next milestone, the 10-millisecond interface.
Once we get past the notion that “fast” can be made to go even faster, we will begin to enter an entirely new era where collaboration will happen instantly across all kinds of boundaries, with all kinds of people. The rulebook for the entire world will be rewritten around the “speed of need.”
Answering the Ethical Questions
Venturing into new territory is a perfect opportunity for us to speculate, and since I’m not a brain matter expert, this is the part that will probably get me in trouble. Some of my assumptions may indeed be erroneous. Science fiction has evolved into the ugly step-sister of the horror industry, leaving us with far too many crazy notions about mind control and the evil intent of people working in this field.
Increasing the speed with which we access information does not mean we are becoming “The Borg” on Star Trek, and our minds will not instantly become controllable or even accessible to others without our consent.
Every mind is different. The patterns and connection we make inside our own minds is uniquely our own. To someone peering in from the outside it will be like looking at a cryptic 3-dimensional document written in a foreign language.
To be sure, dangers still exist, but most will result from areas we don’t yet understand. Social reclusiveness, information additions, and destructive idea viruses may all be part of a much longer list of things that can go wrong.
As most storytellers have learned, the basic components of every story deals with six elements – who, what, when, where, why, and how.
Four of these elements – who, what, when, and where – are factual. With a 10-second neural lace interface, and especially if we drop it to 10-milliseconds, learning becomes far less about committing factual information to memory because information becomes so easily accessible.
Many of today’s most scholarly people who have mastered the capacity to retain vast reservoirs of minutia will find themselves staring toe to toe with average people who have mastered the exact same ability, albeit indirectly with the use of technology.
Schools will no longer focus on the factual information but on the indirect aspects like relational elements, pattern analysis, value statements, opinions, and basic questions like “why” and “how.”
Here are some examples of questions that are not easily answered with a neural lace interface:
- Can you explain the context within which those comments were made?
- How do animal behaviors vary from species to species?
- Was their underlying motivation behind that change detrimental to their cause?
- How did that kind of thinking relate to what other cultures were going through?
- Why do you think that happened?
- Based on your understanding of the situation, was that a good move?
Neural Lace Search Engines for the Physical World
Neural lace technology opens the door to recording everything we see on a daily basis. In fact, it opens the door to information about what everyone else is seeing as well.
As example, if we lose our keys a neural lace will be able to find them because it recorded where we last saw them.
But it’s not just about what we see, it’s also about our other senses as well. Soon we will be able to search on a variety of sensory attributes like smells, tastes, harmonic vibration, texture, specific gravity, and barometric pressure.
Eventually, search engines will have the capability of finding virtually anything in either the digital or physical world.
Each step we take in this direction will be viewed as further intrusion into the sacred ground of privacy, and as a result, a host of masking and cloaking technologies will begin to appear on the market.
Signal jammers, light wave disrupters, and other forms of digital camouflaging will serve as a short-term substitute for public policy failures.
Every piece of cutting edge technology ushers in an entirely new set of problems. Innovations become self-perpetuating because problems demand solutions, and all solutions create more problems.
Living in a super transparent society brings with it and equal number of positives and negatives, but we won’t know where to draw the line on policy matters until we’ve experienced it for ourselves.
In the process we will effectively be rewriting the rules for humanity – our value systems, our expectations, and all the synaptic firings that define us as humans.
Can we possibly be the people we think we should be?
Will Elon Musk be the visionary that paves the way for full-scale implementation of this technology?
When the 10-second interface finally arrives, I will invite all of you to join me in a 10-second toast as we stop to celebrate the importance of this accomplishment.
Enjoy it while you can, the next celebration, perhaps only a few years away, will only last 10-milliseconds.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything