Artificial Intelligence on the Brain. . . Literally

Doubling up on Intelligence with a human and AI hybrid

As if Artificial Intelligence technology wasn’t already advancing at an astounding rate – taking jobs, creating jobs, handling mass data, treating life-threatening diseases and personal shopping, now we have dual intelligence – the next tidal wave of disruption to come out of AI research.

Influential figures and companies have thrown themselves into the further development of Artificial Intelligence. Last month, it was revealed that serial entrepreneur and disruptor Elon Musk has founded a medical research company called Neuralink. The biotech startup is working on a brain-computer interface which removes the need for physical hardware in human-to-machine communications. Is this ultimate cognitive control really achievable, and how will it disrupt the way that we interact with technology?

Merging with machines. . . how and why?

Neuralink is developing neural lace technology which implants electrodes into the brain, allowing humans to upload and download content to and from computers. Similarly, startup Kernel is currently working on neural prosthetics for human intelligence which will first be used to alleviate symptoms of depression and Alzheimer’s. The University of California is also exploring implants as a treatment for brain disorders, and Facebook are pursuing a similar project at their Building 8 hardware division. Couple this with advancements in computer memory, and suddenly neuroscience is opening up to a world of new possibilities.

Amidst fears about rogue AI, some believe the combination of human and artificial intelligence will enable humanity to survive in the event of technological singularity. Musk claims to have a clear commitment to making AI work for humanity, and established a non-profit organisation called OpenAI in 2015 to do exactly that. As Kurzweil’s predicted singularity appears to draw closer, the physical merging of machine learning software and human beings could be the self-made evolution necessary to ride out the storm. At Vox Media’s 2016 Code Conference, Musk stated that the solution to keeping up with super powerful AI is to have “an AI layer.” Other benefits include enabling seamless communication with machines without requiring hardware, and improving cognitive function.

How disruptive are brain-computer interfaces?

At present, the startups pioneering neural implants are primarily focused on clinical applications. If successful, HealthTech will benefit massively from this new tool. Outside of healthcare, brain-computer interfaces will have huge implications for connected products, potentially before the Internet of Things experiences mass adoption. Within the workplace, connecting humans to machines has obvious uses. Instead of manually carrying out a task, a foreman could send a ‘telepathic’ order to a fleet of industrial robots. This sort of interaction is already under development at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. When a human wearing an EEG (electroencephalogram) cap recognises that a Baxter robot has made a mistake, brain waves prompt the machine to try again. There’s potential for domestic commands too, like ‘open the garage door’, ‘turn off the lights’, or ‘make me a coffee’. . . the list goes on.

As well as altering the way we interact with the physical world, brain-computer interfaces will change the nature of human knowledge. People fitted with the interface will essentially have individual search engines, with the Internet available inside their minds. This immediately throws up philosophical debates and changes our understanding of ourselves – what if we can essentially ‘know’ everything straight away via the internet? More practical questions include the impact on academia, as people will be far less inclined to dedicate years of their lives to a seemingly pointless education. Once this technology is developed to an applicable standard, the situation gets even more complicated. For example, who is actually going to be fitted with neural lace? It won’t be universally available straight away, or potentially ever. There are often technological divides within society. . . but in this case, the implications will be far more serious than who has the latest iPhone.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether AI and humans will compete or coexist, and companies like Kernel and Neuralink could well provide the answer to the debate. Neuralink’s first projects will be focused on healthcare, but they aren’t the only player in the game. As far fetched and futuristic as it sounds, this kind of self-made evolution is an adjustment we may have to make in order to keep up with AI – the way to survive in a constantly changing world. Companies have to do it, technology has to do it, and now it looks like humans need to do it too. Brain-computer interfaces could disrupt every single process that humans undertake. However, there’s still so much we don’t know about the brain and the potential of AI, so it’s unlikely that we’ll be transitioning into full cyborgs any time soon. Even so, if brain-computer interfaces do ensure our coexistence alongside intelligent software, they will fundamentally change humanity itself.

Could brain-computer interfaces improve your business operations? Will brain-computer interfaces ensure that humanity survives technological singularity? Does humanity itself need to self-disrupt? Comment below with your thoughts.