April 07, 2017

The concluding feature in The Good City's three-part series on overcoming depression talks about using futuristic tech as a cure, a sharp departure from previously discussed AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) and EAT (Expressive Art Therapy). Take a look.

With the announcement about Neuralink, Elon Musk has forayed into yet another tech field. This field is not rocket science. It is much, much harder!

The ability to interface directly with a human brain conjures up images of the Cyborg, and the allied concepts, some of them alarming. On the plus side, the capability of this interface technology holds promise for people suffering from Depression and even Parkinson's.

Neural lace is made up of tiny bundles of very small electrodes that can be injected into the skull to link up machines with the brain. While it is still very early days, we should remain optimistic about enhancing the quality of human life in this manner.

How does it work?

Neural mapping can result in a faster diagnosis. Image Source

 The essential idea behind this type of startups is to embed or implant devices directly into the human brain. In one direction, these devices then sense brain activity and transmit the information to the digital world. This is the output or display direction and deals with projecting thoughts, emotions and sensory information onto a machine. The complexity of this is mind-boggling in the literal sense. It involves the modeling of brain activity, unintrusively reading the signals and faithfully transmitting them to a machine. The machine has to then make sense out of the huge amount of data coming at it. In the optimistic scenario, a digital or machine intelligence system will be trained and tuned to make sense out of this data. It will not only use "known" patterns but will also have to learn new patterns on the fly.

In the output direction, the early applications are of the command and control type. Far less intrusive versions of this have been experimented with, such as mind-controlled drones that necessitate the user to wear a helmet of sensors. But in the new world, imagine asking your computer, phone or the cloud to perform a task for you. In the future, even recording your thoughts may be possible by borrowing from neurolinguistics and related domains.

In the medical field, some early work has been in the reverse or input direction, i.e. sending or generating signals for the brain. Targeted stimulation techniques have been successfully employed to address specific symptoms or diseases. Generalization of this is more intriguing. If a machine intelligence has the ability to directly stimulate the brain, what can it be used for? Can it be used to create sensations, affect behavior and memory? Some relatively innocuous applications such as helping sleep disorders are from the same realm, but others could raise privacy and ethical questions. This was perhaps the reason why Musk specifically emphasized the "output" path while talking about Neuralink recently.

This, however, is not the first company of its kind, nor will it be the last. Most recently Kernel is trying to operate in the same space.

Science fiction no more - sapient tech is a reality. Image Source

In the ideal world, human (biological) intelligence can hope to be augmented using digital intelligence and the techniques outlined before. Developments are happening at a frantic pace in this area, and in one sense, the future is here!

Text by Chetan Vinchhi

Chetan Vinchhi is a Technologist, Entrepreneur, Mentor, and Consultant based in Bangalore.