Will we be living on the moon or in a cave?
When I made my predictions for the computer industry for 2014, a number readers suggested that I make predictions for 2064. With some anxiety, I decided to sign up for that and started by stepping back into 1964 and asking myself what I would have predicted back then. You can read that here.
When I try to think about the year 2064, my mind almost explodes. Of course, I will probably not be around to see if I was right but then again you never know. Just today I got a link about a woman who is 109 years old who is still has it together and is playing the piano. She is 50 years older than I am now.
So many things will influence the development of technology that it is really difficult to imagine how it would be possible to predict. Climate change, resource depletion, terrorism, effective political systems, and the collapse of currencies are just some of the negative factors that could influence the development of technology. While on the positive side there is the potential of ever increasing computing power and in particular quantum computing, bio engineering – including genetic engineering, discoveries of neuroscience, anti-aging, the invention or discovery of new fuels are just a few of the things that could also influence the development of technology.
I am going to try to focus on a pretty positive scenario not because I believe that, but because it will make for more enjoyable reading. Everything I will write about is something I truly believe could happen.
This is going to be a series of blog posts because I want to be able to go into depth on each one. Then I will summarize them all in one final post on this topic.
First Prediction for 2064: You won’t be using Google, you will be Google
Over the years I have thought a lot about how humans and computers will be able to communicate effectively. If you think of the power of the human mind and think about the power of something like Google Search, you realize that we have a very low bandwidth interface between the two. For a human to receive information from Google currently, the human types or speaks or selects some words, then Google does its work and comes back with some more words, or photos or video. Then the human mind might use that information to make another query. Google gets better at doing its job not only because it is “indexing” more and more information, because there is more and more information available, but also because it is tied into the collective consciousness of all the human beings that use it. It learns from our behavior. Google is getting a lot smarter and lot faster than humans but we humans still possess one of the great miracles of nature, the human brain. There seems to be very little limitations placed on the Google Mind which is at a very early stage of development. Our human minds are at a very advanced state of development but I also believe they may expand in a number of ways that I will go into in future posts. Right now, I am going to focus on the interface between these two “minds”.
As I just mentioned, we have a very limited, low bandwidth interface. What is really bad about this limitation is that it requires our conscious minds to do the interacting when the real power of the human mind is in the subconscious. David Eagelman writes about this in his very engaging book, Incognito which I can definitely recommend. Most of our thinking, exploring of ideas, what we call intuition and creativity happens beyond our conscious mind. We are just starting to understand this. Many of us realize that if we try to manage driving, playing piano or hitting a baseball, we will fail. I for one believe in letting your subconscious mind have its day. That was the true genius of Einstein. But our unconscious mind has no access to Google directly. For that to be achieved we need a very different interface. I will try to describe how such an interface might come about but first we will go back almost 50 years, to 1966 when I first started working on this problem.
Back in 1966, I had been considering three different career paths. One was as a musician/composer, the other was to become a Hassidic Rabbi and the third was to become a scientist. Back in those days, I was very skinny and looked pretty much like an artists paint brush. None of these paths would require me to shave off my beard or cut my long hair. Fortunately for my children, I took the third path.
I started my professional career in neurophysiology, working for Joe Kamiya, a phD at the Langely Porter Institute at the Medical School of UCSF in 1966. We did the first work in brainwave bio-feedback. It was my job to design the equipment that could measure brainwaves and provide feedback using either sound or light. While this took me into the world of microvolt amplifiers, digital logic and eventually software, it also took me into thinking about the brain, the mind and their relationship.
We discovered that we could teach people to change their primary brain state. For instance, we could move them from normal Beta waves to Alpha waves. Joe had already done a study of Zen Monks and we wanted to see if we could re-create the state that they experienced if we could get our subjects to have the same kind of brain patterns. I am pretty sure that they did not really have the same exact experience, although they reported stuff that sounded similar to how people communicate their experience in meditation. I personally got pretty good at controlling my brainwaves.
I even thought about how to create a computer that could play jazz and then tie in the physiological response of the listener by monitoring a number of parameters like, heart rate, galvanic skin response, and brain waves (EKG).
My experience back then has continued to influence my thinking about the evolution of the interface between humans and computers.
Joe Kamiya talk about the early research that I was fortunate to be a part of.
Not many years ago, I learned about brain plasticity. I had thought like so many that at a certain point the brain when we are young, the brain stops developing. Sure we may continue to learn things and gain wisdom and experience but that basic machinery of the brain not only stopped developing but was actually declining. I remember reading about all the millions of brain cells that were dying, never to be replaced. Then around 2000, work by pioneers like Michael M. Merzenic demonstrated that the brain was more like a muscle which could be developed when exercised properly. Merzenic co-founded a company called Posit Science. Around 2005, I became an advisor to that company for a number of years. I was able to take advantage of their technology personally. I took some cognitive tests to get a baseline and then went through their program and tested again. I had substantial improvements in my cognitive functions – which were pretty good to start with. I continue to use their technology today and see improvements in brain speed and short term memory.
The key thing is our brain keeps developing. Also the brain learns to specialize but it starts out with a pretty open mind so to speak. I was pretty sure back in the 60s, and I still believe, that if you provide the brain with some kind of signal about the outside world, it would eventually learn to understand the signal and could experience it as a sensation. Now we have actual examples as a scientist seeks solutions for those that have lost the one or more senses. This is called Sensory Substitution. For instance, it is possible to use the tongue to see. What I am thinking about is actually Sensory Augmentation.
Even in the 60s, I was thinking of how we could get a direct input into the brain. I experimented on myself using electric stimulation on my forehead (I was a pretty weird guy as I am sure you can imagine). I stopped when I started developing skin discoloration.
For many years, I thought that we would have to implant some kind of receiver that would connect electronically to the brain, a sort of ‘third eye”. And maybe that will be the way this all comes about, but now I am thinking there will be an non-invasive way to “plug in” at least at first. This is will be an important step because once we human can experience the direct Brain-to-Net connection, we will be motivated to take the next step which will probably be invasive.
Eventually, we will genetically modify the brain so that it will have some wireless bi-directional interface. It might have to happen prior to birth so there will come a time when a new species of humans will have evolved.
My candidate for a non-invasive high speed Brain-to-Net connection is a magnetic interface. I believe that the brain can develop the ability to “feel’ magnetic impulses just like it can hear or see. So the input may be a band that we wear on our head. The output will be electronic signals originating in the brain like brainwaves. They will be much harder to detect but we will have the capability. Learning to communicate this way will require a training program just as we have to be trained to speak, read and write. We are already experimenting with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.
Once we have a direct Brain-to-Net connection, we will of course start by using our conscious mind to communicate, but over time, our unconscious will also connect. And I am not really talking about a single connection. Just as you have many programs/apps running on your computer and phone, you will have many connections between your brain and applications on the Net. Eventually we will lose the sense of separateness. We will know things that we have never learned. We will explore ideas influenced by information and influenced, not only by the deeds, but also by the thoughts of others.
Of course we will also use this connection to communicate directly with others just as we talk to others now but we will also have deeper connections. This will be challenging and very hard for us to understand now although some of this is already happening in things like crowd sourcing.
In 1964, it was very hard for most people to imagine a world where a human being in any location could speak and see another human being in any location but that is what we have today. In 1964, it was hard to imagine that we could access almost any book that has been written in a matter of second, but now with Kindle and ibooks, we take that for granted. In 1964, it would have been difficult to imagine that you could reach in your pocket , bring out a map that not only would show you the location of any place in the world, but you could actually see images of those places right down to the people walking on the streets. All these things will not only be possible in 2064 but we will no longer have to use our voice or eyes. And oh the dreams at night! Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bits bite.