Bionic brains and beyond

June 4, 2012 | Source: Wall Street Journal

Over the next decade, new implantable technologies will fundamentally alter the social landscape. We are fast approaching a milestone in the eons-long relationship between human beings and their technology.

In Daniel H. Wilson’s new novelĀ Amped, these implants create a class of superabled people whose capacities destabilize society at large, sparking a full-on civil rights movement.

The book was inspired by watching super-enabling technologies creep into society through those who need them most, such as amputees and those who suffer from blindness, deafness or serious brain injuries. But such enhancements will almost inevitably become elective, and then we will face some tough decisions. Should we have an unlimited sovereign right to upgrade our own bodies? Or should such decisions be heavily regulated?

Existing neural implants treat serious conditions. Cochlear implants can deliver sound collected from an external microphone directly to the auditory nerve and into the brain. But in the future, it will be feasible for an implant to recognize almost anything. For instance, it could detect inattention. In response, the implant could stimulate the brain toward a state of focused attention.

The neural implant of the future also could strengthen neural pathways associated with physical tasks. It could recognize “practice” movements and deliver stimulation to associated neurons to help your brain learn faster.

Humanity has been co-evolving with technology for more than 100,000 years. Together with our tools, we are on a grand, generation-spanning trajectory. Whether we like it or not, the next step of this evolution is on the near horizon.