Documenting the Coming Singularity

Monday, April 09, 2007

Mind-Machine Matrimony

Popular Science reports a breakthrough in the effort to join brains and binary in holy (or unholy, depending on your POV) matrimony. Many scientists and futurists have no doubt that the human brain will continue to be augmented by the addition of computer hardware. I say "continue" because devices like cochlear implants are already in widespread use. But the dream of being able to have the perfect and rapid recall of computer memory, along with the blazing speed of computer processors, is still in the (near) future. One of the challenges lies in the physical interface between brain and chip. That challenge in quite a few steps closer to being solved, thanks to work going on in wet lab 412C on the University of Southern California’s Los Angeles campus. As reported by Stephen Handelman:

“Watch this,” says Srinivasan, a design engineer working with USC’s Center for Neural Engineering. A thin wire runs between the needle and a tiny silicon chip hooked up to a boxy signal transmitter. He flips a switch, and a series of small waves shimmers across a nearby screen—waves that mean exactly zilch to me. Watch what? I wonder.

Srinivasan explains that the chip is sending electric pulses through the needle into the brain slice, which is passing them on to the screen we’re watching. “The difference in the waves’ modulation reflects the signals sent out by the brain slice,” he says. “And they’re almost identical in frequency and pattern to the pulses sent by the chip.” Put more simply, this iron-gray wafer about a millimeter square is talking to living brain cells as though it were an actual body part.

Ted Berger, Srinivasan’s boss and the mastermind behind the tangle of coils and electrodes, has arranged this demonstration to provide a small but profound glimpse into the future of brain science. The chip’s ability to converse with live cells is a dramatic first step, he believes, toward an implantable machine that fluently speaks the language of the brain—a machine that could restore memories in people with brain damage or help them make new ones.

Remedying Alzheimer’s disease would, if Berger’s grand vision plays out, be as simple as upgrading a bit of hardware. No more complicated drug regimens with their frustrating side effects. A surgeon simply implants a few computerized brain cells, and the problem is solved.

...researchers within the field say that even this small number represents a stunning achievement in the field of neuro-engineering. “It’s the type of science that can change the world,” says Richard H. Granger, Jr., a professor of brain sciences who leads the Neukom Institute for Interdisciplinary Computational Sciences at Dartmouth College. “Replicating memory is going to happen in our lifetimes, and that puts us on the edge of being able to understand how thought arises from tissue—in other words, to understand what consciousness really means.”

I wouldn't mind a memory upgrade. I may not be able to be one of the first adopters, you know, the rich guys who owned those first dresser-sized VCRs that cost several thousand dollars. But when they come down in price, if I'm still here, by golly, fit me out!

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Spaceman Spiff said...

I'd take an upgrade to read faster, an upgrade to enjoy vegetables and fruits, and one to curb my appetite quicker. That'd be pretty sweet.

Barry Mahfood said...

You can get better than that. You'll be able to have nanobots in your digestive system and bloodstream deliver to your cells only the nutrients your body needs. The rest will be flushed away. Neat, huh?