The future of perception: brain-computer interfaces — introduction

When science fiction becomes scientific reality

Image source and excellent neuro-tech blog: Convergent science network.


Even if you are not a fan of science fiction, you might be more familiar with it than you think. Our everyday technology, things we take for granted, from social networks to smartphones to online shopping and google, are only products of the very recent past. Science fiction is not all about unlikely or impossible events like alien invasions or time travel, mostly it is about envisioning a more comfortable or amazing future. The first science fiction attempts in literature date back to prominent authors like H.G. Wells, but real imaginative science goes back way further. Take Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine in 1496. Pure science fiction at the time, but today helicopters and planes are extremely commonplace.

Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine in 1496. Image source.

Today, imaginative science is too often tossed in the same bucket with the unrealistic time travel/alien invasion part of science fiction, even when it resembles more closely scientific reality of the near future. In this article series, we aim to take a long hard look on the science behind brain-computer interfaces, a technology prominent in science fiction since at least the 1970’s and an essential component of fictional entities like cyborgs.

In a nutshell: A brain-computer interface is a technology which will allow humans to control a computer or electronic device via thought.

If you heard this definition for the first time, your reaction might go somewhat like “Yeah, sure. And pigs can fly. Now let me move on my day!”… but hang in there. Consider this little thought experiment:

Imagine, if you could go back 100 years, when cars just started to be a thing, you would go to university cafeteria and tell the most forward-thinking students that you can access all the knowledge in the world with this small metal device (=smartphone) in your pocket by accessing a global virtual information network (=the internet). They would have laughed you out of the room. Even if they’d believed you initially, you might have a hard time explaining why someone with your power only uses this “magical device” to look at videos of cats? Or argue with people on the other side of the planet they will never meet? How absurd! For most common folk back in the day, you would have been labeled crazy, a lunatic, and certainly being admitted to a mental facility with your talk about “smart”-phones.

This imaginary tale tries to illuminate that humans are generally bad a projecting what the future will bring, especially on longer time scales. Humans a 100 years ago were not stupid, nor necessarily ignorant, and they certainly did not lack any physiological brain structures necessary for abstract thinking. Yet, the everyday future we live in today would have been unimaginable for them. They had no mental concepts for the internet, social networks, search engines or home computers. Even computers (or calculators) in 1946, only 70 years ago, looked more like this:

ENIAC: less processing power than a non-smart phone. Source
The problem with predicting the future does not only lie with one particular scientific advancement, it is the sum of many connected things (social, educational, political) that makes our lives so completely different compared to 100 years ago.

If you’d ask people back then to project into the future, their visions would have been off completely; as is being documented by the literature of that time.

Today, we know that we are not at the “evolutionary pinnacle”, yet we are not conscious about the implications of technological progress for the most part. We understand that there might be incremental improvements in one field or the other, but we believe to have a pretty decent rough understanding of the pace of our physical world and that our way of life will not change so dramatically again like it did in the past.

So far, brain-computer interphases sound “science-fictiony” even to many scientists, and borderline delusional to the majority of people.

However, in this article series we want to put preconceived notions to the side and look at the actual data. We will discuss what research successes in this field have been achieved so far and what it means for the future of medicine, the future of intelligence and ultimately the future of humanity.

However, before we can make an argument for brain-computer interfaces, we first have to gain some scientific understanding of the most complicated object in the known universe: The human brain.

This story is part of advances in biological sciences, a science communication plattform that aims to explain ground-breaking science in the field of biology, medicine, biotechnology, neuroscience and genetics to literally everyone. Scientific understanding has too many barriers, let’s break them down!

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