The Gods of Silicon Valley Discover BCI

In the past decade the Valley Gods have charged off to inhabit space, create floating islands, and to conquer death itself. These epic adventures are still in progress or abandoned in a “pivot” to more mundane goals.

These same folks have now discovered Brain Computer Interfaces. BCI, and the underlying neuroscience, is neither new, nor unexplored. There is a century and more solid science here, and brain computer interfaces have been explored for some five decades. Heck, even I have fiddled around with low grade BCI [1].

What I’m saying here is that this isn’t an unplowed field.

Eliza Strickland reports in IEEE Spectrum about “four ventures that could signify the beginning of a new era of neurotech—or the beginning of a brain-tech bubble”. [2]

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is working on “a system that will let you type straight from your brain about 5 times faster than you can type on your phone today”, projecting 100 words per minute(!). This is a plausible technology (not least because it already exists), though Strickland notes, “the current record for typing-by-brain is eight words per minute, a feat achieved with an invasive brain implant.

I’ll also predict that this technology might well be vastly more distracting to use than speech recognition, which is  equivalent to driving while intoxicated. If they really build this, it may be the most dangerous device yet.

Ex-Facebooker Mary Lou Jepsen is developing high resolution brain imaging using infrared scattering. This sounds like a neat system, though I’m not really sure what spatial and temporal resolution they can get. She imagines that this imaging will let them read thoughts and, somehow, to “write” thoughts into the brain.

This would be telepathy.

Right.

I’m a tad skeptical of how this imaging relates to “thinking”, not least because no one has much clue how thinking actually works. I don’t really understand how this IR interface could “write” thoughts, because, well no one know how thinking works.

I’ll also point out that telepathy is a really, really bad idea. See Sensei Willis.

Elon Musk is not content to conquer space, manufacture cars, “invent” solar roofs, and build magic railroads, he’s also interested in augmenting cognition. Details are elusive, but he seems to be looking at injectable nano electrical devices that somehow help with brain injuries, and a decade from now, “everyday people will use to augment their cognitive abilities”.

I have no idea what this means. No one actually understands cognition, so it’s hard to know what kinds of “augmentation” might be done with a mesh of electrodes in the brain.

Bryan Johnson, founder of Braintree, is working on “an implanted brain prosthetic” that originally was intended to “help failing memories”. What could that mean? I have no idea. Surprisingly enough, they have “pivoted” to just making an improved neural sensor.

The technology sounds great, but given that no one knows how memory works, I’m not especially surprised that the original plan was infeasible.

In case you didn’t catch it, I’m extremely skeptical of these projects. They seem to be based on fundamental ignorance of the brain and decades of research, and are over exposure to Silicon Valley culture. And, of course, these people have more money than they know what to do with.

Skipping the cultural questions (why would you think that you know more than expert neuroscientists, just because you have a billion dollars to play with?), there are some really fundamental technical problems with this program.

The brain is complicated. It isn’t just complicated, we don’t even understand the scales that it works at. It you propose to measure (and manipulate) a system, you really need to have to work at the spatial and temporal scales that are relevant. (You can’t do heart surgery with a shovel.) I don’t think anyone knows all the different processes in the brain, but I’m pretty sure that they are finer grained that these technologies.

Second, there is that pesky mind-brain thing. Human perception, memory, and cognition are not really understood. The relationship between physical processes (i.e., the brain) and subjective human experience are not known. We know that we don’t know this.

To me, these projects are basically nonsense, based on wishful thinking and hand waving. I don’t care how much money you have, you aren’t going to implement a telepathy hat, at least not until you understand a whole lot more about brains than all the neuroscientists in history put together.

Even if these technologies actually worked, which I doubt, why do you want them anyway? What are they for? How will you use them?

I’m particularly concerned because there are a lot of extremely dangerous and destructive uses for these technologies, even if they only partly work.

I’m sure that some of the excitement is a hope that this is the road to immortality via upload to silicon, i.e., the singularity. Some of the enthusiasts are known to be interested in brain hacking, i.e., replacing drugs with computer downloads. It is possible that some people want to replace sex with telepathy.

For some reason, they don’t emphasize these use cases in the corporate materials!

Unfortunately, I suspect that these devices will be put to  even worse use. control and coercion. “Telepathy” is the ideal surveillance and lie detection technology. Even if you don’t say anything, we can tell you are thinking evil thoughts. It is also an aid to brutal psychological torture. When you can monitor the victims fear and pain, and optimize your cruelty.

And speaking of cruel psychological torture: advertisers pay anything to be able to implant messages directly in your brain.

Imagine the joy of a telepathy system infested with ads and spam.

Don’t scoff.  Remember that these guys are investing fortunes that were built on surveillance and advertising.

Sigh.


  1. Robert E. McGrath, Johan Rischau, and Alan B. Craig, Transforming Creativity: Personalized Manufacturing Meets Embodied Computing. Knowledge Management and E-Learning, 4 (2):157-173, June 2012. http://www.kmel-journal.org/ojs/index.php/online-publication/article/view/182
  2. Eliza Strickland, Silicon Valley’s Latest Craze: Brain Tech, in IEEE Spectrum – Biomedical. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/devices/silicon-valleys-latest-craze-brain-tech

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