Visions of the so-called Singularity—the merging of man and machine—are solidifying day by day. In April, Facebook announced that it's got 60 engineers tinkering away at a wearable device will read your thoughts and turn them into status updates. And Elon Musk's Neuralink, unveiled in March, is looking at developing a tissue implant—but instead of simply writing down your thoughts, the company wants you to share them instantly with everyone else's chip-pimped brains.
The trendy technology is called "neural interfacing," and it usually aims to enhance the mind by connecting it to objects outside the human body, integrating us closely with our devices. Emerging research has already shown that we can't put down our phones (we check them, on average, every 15 minutes), leading researchers to fear the dissolution of the human attention span once we don't even need to hold them. In the neurally-interfaced future we will, in a literal sense, become one with our devices—and even each other, if bioengineers can overcome fears that linking to other brains might create a hackable hive-mind.
But before we need to worry about defending our brains against other brains, we'll be able to control thermostats and drive cars just by thinking about it, according to the experts I spoke with, who think it will represent an evolutionary turning point.
We already create odd connections to our stuff. I wanted to find out why we get so attached to things like that t-shirt from your ex that's still hanging in your closet (the one you totally don't still wear when you're having an emotional crisis). So I called Aaron Ahuvia, a University of Michigan marketing prof who studies why people form emotional bonds with inanimate stuff that can't like you back. Ahuvia calls possessions like these "love objects," and neurologically speaking, they're pretty damn weird.
The human brain is wired to respond to other people, Ahuvia explained. There's actually a whole part of the brain—the neocortex—that's dedicated in part to forming those bonds with other humans, as opposed to inanimate objects. But sometimes non-people take on that special status, too. So when you're too enamoured with a possession to throw it away, "you're treating an object using the people parts of the brain," Ahuvia said.
When we can control an object with our neurological system, instead of with our hands, Ahuvia hypothesizes that it'll quite literally become a part of us, fusing to our identities in a way non-linked possessions don't. Ahuvia calls this the "prosthetic self": given our agency over a neurally-interfaced world, he thinks we'll begin to blur the boundaries between object and human identity for good.
"I think the interaction between man and machine is going to move all of us forward"
But does the theory pan out? I called Dustin Tyler from Case Western Reserve University. Tyler has spent the last few years perfecting neurally-interfaced bionic limbs, and he told me that having agency over something is just one aspect of forming a prosthetic self.
Tyler thinks we'll have stronger ties to objects we physically embody—things we don't just control, but which also push information back to our brains.
Tyler's lab recently created a prosthetic hand that sends sensory feedback up the spinal cord through nerve bundles in the injured limb, restoring the sense of touch. He said his patients immediately adopt the machine as a part of themselves. Unlike traditional prostheses, which tend to feel like clunky tools to their wearers, Tyler's patients report that the cyborg hand feels natural, as though it's made of flesh and bone rather than plastic and wiring.
Prosthetic Hand Restores Sense of Touch. Video: CWRU/YouTube
Tyler believes that expanding the possibilities of agency and embodiment "will be revolutionary" for communication, on par with the invention of radio and television. "It will completely change our interface to all objects," Tyler said. "We now have legitimate approaches to the third revolution. It's not just 'hey, I can feel my hand'—it really does change our interaction with the object."
Tyler, like any good cyborg enthusiast, sees neural interfacing as a given. "I think this idea of artificial intelligence is a red herring in some ways," he said. "I don't think it's going to be machine taking over man. I actually think the interaction between man and machine is going to move all of us forward."
I spoke to James Hughes, a bioethicist and cyborg expert teaching out of the University of Massachusetts Boston. He's one of the world's most prominent transhumanists. When I told him about Ahuvia's theory, he didn't bat an eye. "I think it's going to happen," he said.
Hughes pointed out that we already tend to treat some objects as part of the "extended self"—items like wedding rings (or all those long-lost Charizards) are a testament to the power of identity-forming stuff. So when it comes to devices like thought-controlled cars or robots, "there's a continuity with that extension," he said.
Neural interfacing, like "taking certain drugs or meditating, can suppress the creation of the body's boundaries, giving you a sense of cosmic oneness," he said.
The more profound question isn't about linking ourselves to love objects, Hughes said. It's about linking to other brains, other people's thoughts and memories—like Musk aims to do, eventually, with Neuralink.
"The optimistic version is that we set up all the right firewalls and permissions so that we can ease into it, and share the things you want and not the things you don't, and not blow up your sense of self," Hughes said. "The dystopian version is something like the Borg—the coercive use or suppression of the self, and the creation of the group-self. "
And who knows, he said. "Maybe we could accidentally end up there."
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