Photo credit: John Lund/Getty

The human-machine symbiosis

From science fiction to reality

More than five decades ago, J.K.R. Licklider presented an unsettling, yet tantalizing, vision of the future: the close coupling of human brains and computing machines, otherwise known as the man-computer symbiosis. Since then, tremendous efforts have gone into realizing this vision, pushing forward computing technology in leaps and bounds.

Licklider’s vision is premised upon the idea that human intellect should be complemented by machines, such that computers are tasked to perform routine or formulative work, paving the way for insights and decisions by humans; in other words, technology as an enabler of human capabilities. That doesn’t prevent us, however, from pitting humans against machines and vice versa. What if artificial intelligence were to overtake humans one day? Would the human race be rendered defenseless by the very technologies that it has created with its own hands?

Grégoire Courtine, CSO of G-Therapeutics, holding a silicon model of monkey’s brain and an implant. (Photo credit: Alain Herzog/Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne)

Despite our hesitations, we never ceased our endeavors to develop machines. Technology, after all, brings many benefits to society. Take G-Therapeutic’s latest triumph: helping a paralyzed monkey to walk again thanks to a wireless brain implant. A 2014 Hello Tomorrow grand prize winner, G-Therapeutic is a spin-off from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). This is the first time that a neurotechnology has restored locomotion in primates; while there is still a great challenge to restore movement in humans, these findings represent a huge leap forward for paralyzed patients with the use of implant devices.

And more recently, at the Hello Tomorrow Global Summit, we had a chance to listen to Hugo Mercier talk about neurotechnology. Mercier is the CEO and cofounder of Rythm, a French startup which seeks to build upon the existing electroencephalogram (EEG) technology to enhance human performance. Using EEG, Rythm has developed its first product, Dreem, a wearable headset that helps improve sleep quality by stimulating brain waves with non-invasive sound to remain longer in deep sleep. Think of it as a metronome for your sleep.

A look inside the Dreem headset, which stimulates the brain for improved sleep (Photo credit: Numerama)

The headset combines four core technologies: EEG sensors, electronics, algorithms, and database. The algorithms process signals picked up by the headset, analyzing the EEG data to actively stimulate the brain for improved sleep. When connected to the smartphone app, which also receives additional inputs from the user about his/her mood and activities throughout the day, the experience broadens to include relevant advice for improved sleeping habits.

Hugo Mercier, CEO and cofounder of Rythm, speaks at Hello Tomorrow Global Summit 2016 about neurotechnology

Mercier has his sights set on something bigger, however. The aim is to evolve towards a massive aggregate of brain and EEG data that today remain fragmented across different laboratories. With continuous quality monitoring of our brain waves and a comprehensive dataset, Rythm hopes to expand the application of this technology into medical and educational fields. What if we could detect patterns of diseases, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson’s, as early as five to ten years before symptoms manifest themselves? And what if we could monitor brain waves and adapt educational content to how students learn? This could significantly increase educational efficiency while enriching students’ learning experience.

The intersection of neuroscience, biotechnology, and computer science is brimming with potential. When we consider the opportunities presented by sophisticated algorithms, automation, robot reasoning and more, we can begin to envision a future where spheres of human activities are enhanced. This inevitably raises questions about the risks and threats that technology poses on issues such as privacy and ethical responsibility in our modern age. But this trend toward human-machine symbiosis is not already pre-defined — what remains to be done, so that we can truly reap the benefits of technology, will require interdisciplinary collaboration and a thorough understanding of technological implications.