HUMAN 2.0: When Humans merge with Machines

New Yorker magazine cover, September 2019

New Yorker magazine cover, September 2019

If you wanted to know the past and future of computing, all you need to do is to take a look at September 2019 cover of the New Yorker magazine.

A cover designed by Christoph Niemann depicts a computing evolution from big mainframe computers and other computing developments that followed such as smaller computers to computer-powered human beings. Yes, humans, which can also be referred to as Human 2.0, the merging of human beings (biological intelligence) with technology (machine intelligence). 

Neurotechnology is not new, it was born in the 1970s when Jaques Vidal proposed that electroencephalography (EEG), which tracks and records brain-wave patterns via sensors placed on the scalp (electrodes), could be used to create systems that allow people to control external devices directly with their mind. The idea was to use computer algorithms to transform the recorded EEG signals into commands. Since then, interest in the idea has been growing rapidly as seen in recent announcements by a startup led by Elon Musk, Neuralink and research financed by Facebook at the University of California, San Francisco.

Neuralink is developing an '  interface', essentially a network of tiny electrodes linked to your brain that the company envisions will allow us to communicate wirelessly with the world. It would enable us to share our thoughts, fears, hopes and anxieties without written or spoken the language. Essentially, the A whole-brain interface would give your brain the ability to communicate wirelessly with the cloud, with computers, and with the brains of anyone who has a similar interface in their head. 

The technology developed by Neuralink could initially be used to study brain mechanisms and treat disorders such as epilepsy or major depression. Together with electrodes for “reading” the brain activity, it could also implant electrodes for stimulating the brain – making it possible to detect and halt epileptic seizures.

The Elon Musk-led startup is not alone in merging the brain with technology. Facebook at the University of California is financing research that is creating a device, brain-machine interface,  that can read your mind literally. This it does by picking up thoughts directly from your neurons and translate them into words. The short-term goal is to help patients with paralysis, by decoding their brain signals and allowing them to communicate their thoughts without ever having to move a muscle. In a first for the field, researchers at the institution say, they’ve built an algorithm that’s able to decode words from brain activity and translate it into text on a computer screen in real-time. The human participants in their study — three volunteers with epilepsy — already had electrodes surgically implanted on the surface of their brains as part of the preparation for neurosurgery to treat their seizures. They listened to straightforward questions (like “How is your room currently?”) and spoke their answers out loud. The algorithm, just by reading their brain activity, decoded the answers with accuracy rates as high as 61 per cent.

All of these developments are futuristic in nature but are a preview of what’s coming in the future. Amazon, however, is developing tools that can be regarded as the beginning of this trend at least by familiarising society to gadgets that connect with our bodies. 

Recent announcements by Amazon such as the Amazon Echo set of devices spectacles, ear devices and a ring are to a certain extent a process that will lead to merging human intelligence and machine intelligence. Although Amazon Echo has nothing to do with neurotechnology they are devices that can (if successful)  convince human beings to easily accept invasive objects into the human body.

Although these developments are an important step in the evolution of computing, they also raise critical ethical issues. A lot can go wrong if these tools malfunction within our bodies as its often the case with technology. Currently professional and companies that develop these tools are not subjected to the same ethical standards that medical professionals undergo. It is therefore high time that an international ethics body be established to oversee and govern technologies that will have a significant impact on peoples lives. If this matter was hidden from the public eye, the September 2019 New Yorker magazine cover by Niemann should serve as a wake-up call of where technology is taking us and inspire action now to ensure that we don’t suffer in the name of advancement.

Kay Ann