The human brain can now be perfected or treated by scientists using electron microscopes, electrodes, optical fibers, magnetism or sound waves from outside. It also helps machine learning. Technology linked to the brain can partially return people’s sight, movement or emotion. But their rise also carries risks. Speaking on exciting inventions, Divya Chander, professor of neuroscience, spoke at Singularity Czech Summit at the Prague Zofin.
Q: When does technology allow us to read our thoughts or dreams?
Some things we can do now. For example, a group of Japanese scientists has created a system for using magnetic resonance to read dreams. We can now make a very crude reconstruction of what we see or imagine. The point is that if, for example, in our head, we are projected to play tennis, we activate the same part of the brain as if it really was. When a person sees something and passes through his visual system, we are able to “read” the visual cortex (a part of the cortex that processes visual information, note red) and create rough images of the matter. We now use machine learning algorithms, which requires a lot of computer power. And big magnets are also needed.
Q: So to make these options available to a regular person, we would have to drop the big magnets or shrink them …
Exactly. However, technologies such as holography are on the horizon. The introduction of such products can happen this year. These can be, for example, portable technologies that can be used to visualize structures in the brain. But the big question is the calculated computing power. These experiments require a sufficient battery or connection to something that can process information. But I think that in two to five years we will start running around with caps, glasses or other devices that will capture many of our sensory information and reconstruct them.
Q: So, in two years, people will normally use devices that can read our thoughts?
It always depends on accuracy. The best signal we can get is from the electrodes that are implanted directly into the brain. The worst is with EEG. Here at the summit we could see a man who has an amputated hand and uses robotic instead. It connects with the electrodes to the amputated limb, collects electrical signals from the brain, and can be moved in all directions by machine learning. Meanwhile, it is limited by batteries and other things, but it will improve because the fields help each other. Explorationally evolving computer technology, neuroscience will also be rapid. Within two-three years, really interesting things will happen. For example, virtual reality – we are now joining eye cameras, EEG instruments, infrared spectroscopy, and so on in order to immerse ourselves in the world, measure the brain’s responses, and eventually stimulate them.
Q: Will it be possible to transfer our thoughts to a foreign brain?
I think yes. First simple thoughts. I have shown one experiment made using a device called Starstim, which is such an EEG cap. You can imagine very simple things, they will change to one and zero and will be sent over the internet to someone who can read them. If we are able to improve this and the algorithms, we will be able to send far more complex things. Imagine seeing a scene, wearing a cap that removes the visual cortex, so it is possible to reconstruct the scene in better resolution and send it to someone over the internet. Perhaps we will be able to send that information so that the other person will see through my eyes what I see.
Q: Are these companies already developing this?
Hollywood is working with Openwater in San Francisco, others are likely to follow. Many companies combine EEG and eye tracking with virtual reality. The power of these technologies was seen on the example of a paralyzed man who had an EEG cap attached, and using signals from the brain and electrodes in his knees began to walk. Technology not only serves to send thoughts but can help people recover completely. Paralyzed patients can walk or regain different abilities.
Q: There are also efforts to control social networks with ideas.
Yes, Mark Zuckerberg is working with Facebook and is not the only one. We have paralyzed patients who can slowly write using thoughts. Facebook is trying to develop that we can control our devices and social networks with thoughts so we do not have to use our fingers at all.
Q: It sounds scary …
I would like to point out that for companies like Facebook or Google, we have become essentially a commodity. I would use these technologies with care. There is evidence that it is possible to identify a person using brain signals captured by EEG, it is similar to fingerprints. Today we have fingerprint, voice, face recognition. Would you even have your brain? Once someone has access to your thoughts, at some point they will be able to create your digital avatar, without being there. If you think election hacking is extra, wait for what’s coming.
Q: Are you careful when using technology?
Yes, I have a camera on my laptop, I’m watching the microphones, and I do not have any “smart appliances” at home. Even though I know they would make my life easier. I think it should be one of the important streams in business – the development of artificial intelligence, which can help us but also protect our privacy, breaks down the signals. We are not a commodity, why should companies own us?
Q: Even though you’re excited about the new technologies, you are a bit worried about the current developments. What do you think we need to do to keep humanity from getting out of hand?
One of the reasons I teach Singularity here is the need to let people know that these things are happening here and now. If we do not, no one else will be involved in the discussion except people who have money and those who make the decision. This is not a good way. Governments nowadays use face recognition technology, have the ability to track people and treat them as criminals without doing anything. We should know what is happening, connect and create an ethical system. It has to be global.
Q: Where should the border be that we should not cross?
There will be none. For example, what is otherwise inconceivable is practiced in Asian countries. They have different cultural feelings and a religious background. You can not stop anything. Now there is an international consortium of scientists and leaders who said that the CRISPR / Cas9 gene editing technology should not interfere with the germ line – DNA that our children inherit. I just do not know how long it will last. Let’s say I’m a woman with cystic fibrosis. A sickness with a fifty percent chance that your child will inherit it. And I want a healthy baby. Would it be an ethical imperative to edit my germ line so as not to pass this terrible illness to my children? These are matters that make it a very difficult question. Because the next thing that can be followed is to give the child intelligence, height … Simple answers do not exist. We must be educated and informed.
Q: At the conference, you also talked about the fact that scientists in Switzerland are developing an artificial brain. What do these artificially created brains do today?
Very little. With the ones the Swiss are trying to create within the so-called Brain Blue project, there is a lot of work to do. Because even the smallest millimeter of brain tissue has many neurons, joints. Creating one cubic millimeter costs a lot of computational energy. They are now starting to generate electrical activity that looks like the activity of real nerve networks. Again, with computers now on the rise, they can move much faster. In a year, they can make a shift that they had 10 years earlier. It will be very interesting to watch when they come up with something complex. Probably will not start with human but with a muzzle or mouse brain. Will these artificial brains start with the same kinds of algorithms as ours? Will there be consciousness?
Q: Consciousness is one of the questions you are also examining. Why is it so important?
It is the meaning of life, perhaps the most important question. What is consciousness? What makes us conscious of ourselves and is it what makes us people? Also important to me is the question: Do our brains generate consciousness, or is it something we have access to through them? In my doctoral work, I studied the visual system. The human eye has three color receptors. We see a very narrow piece of the electromagnetic spectrum and we discard the other information. Our world is not as rich as the world of some animals. Butterflies and some birds see in the ultraviolet spectrum, the shrimp has 15 color receptors. We only have what we need to survive, and we have a special belief that what we see is reality. As for consciousness, our brain is a filter that allows survival. Maybe it generates consciousness, maybe it filters it.
Q: You are also conscious of the patients in the operating room, using the EEG, why are you doing this?
It’s like pressing a button and watching what’s happening to the brain. We are able to identify the nerve networks involved in the processes of acquiring and losing consciousness. We have found that there is a certain overlap between these networks and those that support sleep. We find that the more the brain is more wired, the more functional it is. Our findings can contribute to the development of better brain monitoring.