Some innovations have gone down in history as more important than the others, transforming whole societies. For example the steam engine taught us to transport people and items, power industries by something else besides manpower. Antibiotics ushered the era of modern medicine. Pesticides and food preservatives increased dramatically the availability of nutrition. The invention of the microchip started the dawn of the information age.
Most curiously most of the major innovations have not been that significant on their own. Instead they have had catalytic properties, supporting complete fields of science, culture, and economic activities. Most have been improved, and discarded by improved versions that came right after them. That has been the major theme of 21st century. By standing on the shoulders of the giants we have constantly been reaching higher and further, improving upon what came before.
It is an exciting time to be alive, because we are slowly beginning to understand what we do not know, and the rate for gathering information is accelerating to neck breaking speeds. Indeed, we have hit a plateau where we see thousands of things but have no capability of determining what is significant and what is not.
Luckily, I happen to know what will go down in the pages of history as the most important innovation of the 21st century. It is the one that allows us to stay on top of the information wave, provides endless new angles on the human mind, acts as a catalyst for solving the 21st century issues (war, famine, disease, pollution, greed, etc), and makes effective immortality a reality.
I am talking about direct neural interfaces, and specifically the upcoming consumer applications.
The play on human senses
You reading this, and experiencing what you experience right now is not really that complex. It is all just tiny electrical impulses, assisted and partly caused by chemistry.
Interfacing directly with a sufficient amount of human nerves allows substituting the nerve inputs from our sensory organs with a virtual reality experience that we are unable to distinguish from real life. This opens up several possibilities in the educational fields.
Take professions requiring long training before reaching sufficient proficiency in motoric, judgmental, and other mental skills. Good example would be a surgeon. With a direct neural interface it will be possible to record what an expert perceives, how the tools feel when being operated masterfully, and to play it all back to a novice. Instead of pale description a way of sharing executions indistinguishable from reality would allow accelerated paths towards expertness. Getting a new type of feedback for activity, to be able to compare, and correct constantly against a master would be magnificently efficient.
People working in dangerous occupations would be allowed to screw up in training without major consequences. For instance soldiers, police, and firemen could test new tactics. In an event of their deaths they would be able to reflect on the experience, get the viewpoint of their adversaries played back to them, and retry the operation ad nauseam until getting their actions correct.
This would increase the availability of certain types of skilled workers drastically, make their skills superior, and shorten the unproductive periods of learning. The impact on societies would be profound. But that is not all, as the salesmen like to say.
What if the Hollywood made mission impossible 5 so that you would actually see and feel all that Ethan Hunt does? That is all just a few terabytes of data to be streamed into your neural pathways, and entirely doable. The power of that experience would transform the entertainment industry for forever.
Medicine is an other field that will gain a lot from direct neural interfaces. Replacing lost limbs by something that feels and actually works is a noble cause. That this is done already to some extent. Some legs, hands, and even a few eyes are already functional, although on a very basic level. At some day the replacement parts will be better than the originals and we will notice that they might be other reasons besides losing limbs for replacing them. Enhancing human senses by adding new sensory organs, or limbs tailored for specific tasks, can open endless possibilities.
And what about just building user interfaces for everyday stuff to improve the quality of everyday life? Just passive listening would make ubiquitous computing so much easier to implement. It is hard enough to attempt to anticipate the wishes of a human being from external cues. Being able to take into account the internal status would certainly help. Before that is made possible I fear that we will mostly keep seeing random hits and misses on the success of ubiquitous computing.
Towards higher intelligence
Extending human mind requires a bit more than playing around with our senses. It is however also doable by direct neural interfaces.
Think about something mundane. Say, a banana. What color it is? You instantly know what the answer is, and recognize that this is usually true. It is not like you thought with a booming voice in your mind “GOOGLE BANANA COLOR” like you would likely do with our present personal knowledge assistance. What happened was a search for keys to information, and a pervasive retrieval. We know whether we know things, even before we actually recall them. Then a mysteriously effortless process produces us the results. Usually, because we are not perfect.
Direct neural interfacing would make it possible to produce the “keys” and the “information” (this is close to the models of cognitive psychology) for everything we come up with, without us noticing anything. Like a spooky action in distance we would know everything that is searchable from digital libraries such as Wikipedia, given they were indexed and prepared properly. Now think about how much more effectively a person like that could solve real life problems, go through variations of theories, and synthesize new solutions. In several areas of human life that would change everything, although staying sane would probably require implementing some safeguards.
Moving further, how about instant skills, and downloading skills straight to parts of your brain? This time not just impressions of someone doing something, but the actual skills directly! The thing seen in the Matrix movies is not that far out as one might believe. Again, not overloading our brain pans would be a minor issue, but training neural pathways is just about generating correct stimulus, and solvable. Skills would here naturally include complex thoughts, such as theories about modern quantum physics, and other constructs.
The previous gives a new meaning to the old saying “to stand on the shoulders of the giants“. Instead of pieces of data it will be possible to teach the way those giants actually thought about the matters, the processes they used to come up to their conclusions, and the complete mindsets behind issues. And it wouldn’t be just a description but exactly as the giants saw the issues. That would allow continuing the work on top of all that knowledge and wisdom even though the original giant was gone already.
Thus, we are moving close to describing a catalyst that can be used to solve the 21st century issues. Simply moving the capability of mental processing to a new level we can easily solve what we choose. The ability to master several fields of study simultaneously and to synthesize between, nearly limitless fact availability, and the trainability of the methods of effective thinking are sure to slingshot the productivity of every R&D type activity to the stratosphere.
Melding towards immortality
Nothing expels monsters like a beam of light. Nothing expels racism, bigotry, and prejudice like information. Information about an other, their point of view, and how they feel. That is what might be possible in the future – playing an other person’s mindsets to an other. That would show to each one of us that we are of the same, and profoundly change how we act towards each other. We can not hurt ourselves, as it would be insanity towards ourselves. And that’s what would change our world if it were made available for everyone to experience.
How about sharing thoughts, live, then? That is certainly possible. Instead of talking with each other, we could send each others what would seem like a stream of feeling fragments, thought constructs, and memories. Semantic, truly accurate and perfectly understandable communications is something we presently lack. We approximate even our most complex thoughts with crude sounds, transmit them over by archaic methods, lacking parts of the context, and the other party has to attempt grasping the meaning from that, usually failing to some degree. It’s a wonder that humanity made it out of the bronze age to think of it.
Thinking together with another person will be the next step. Consider what happens when you join five normal persons that all have a common goal at the time to solve a common problem. If they are disciplined to adhere to certain rules, their combined thinking power might actually help them to be more than they are, and to solve some issues humans are simply not smart enough to deal on their own. And as I have pointed out several times already, most innovations happen when things from even surprising areas are synthesized together. So, why not think with something entirely different, probably a computer, as well.
That brings us to the issue of immortality. We are our thought processes. Those are mostly electric impulses (although extremely complex). If we can be recorded, uploaded, and we can think with other people (or machines), what demands that we think inside our heads? The answer is, probably after considerable refining of the idea, nothing at all. Moving ourselves to new platforms when our physical shells get damaged or too old should not be too challenging. It is after all just basic continuation of everything I have described previously, meaning that effectual immortality is at our grasps.
The funny thing is, there is a lot of work being done to improve the human computer interaction. Some of this work is reaching for direct neural interfaces even without realizing it. Take Oculus VR, Google Glass, or smart phones with all their features for example. We will look in couple decades at all of that with a nostalgic smile. The cool kids are already working towards the better stuff, but they lack the complete vision, and goals for full spectrum dominance. Taking that stuff out of the laboratories is the key to success.
That’s the ironic part. It takes a lot money to develop this stuff to actual consumer product stage. Less than 50 companies in the world might have the necessary resources for that. The required technologies would be all patentable, and potentially worth trillions of dollars in technology licensing feeds. After all, nearly every industry and field of economic or cultural activity stands in queue to utilize them. Couple billion mobile devices, billion personal computers to replace. A few dozen billion ubiquitous appliances to enhance. There is a perfect blue ocean situation here. Heck, it’s more like a water world.
Even though there are early demonstrators, and other reasons to believe everything is possible, there is still no massive investment. Everyone wants to see someone else go first. The larger the company the more careful it tends to be. They got to become big somehow, and they are trying to stay large. So, avoiding risks is rewarded. Let some smaller to take risks, and as it is common nowadays, buy out the small ones before they become challengers. Ha. So, the investment is clearly out of the question. Even though the prize is trillions of $$$$. Baffling. Sad. Ironic.
I have a pretty simple motivation here. I am writing this in the hopes that I get to say “what did I say” in my lifetime. In case I get any chance to invest myself into what I described, I will jump in. I know it’s the holy grail of 21st century. In case I get any chance to work with a project that works with this stuff, I will instant jump at that chance. If I get to talk with any brave enough VC with spare a few billion dollars, I will try to convince that my vision is correct.