Neurotechnology is on the rise to transform all aspects of human life. As a curious software engineer working primarily with web technologies, I have questioned how the development of this exciting new tech sector may change how we use the World Wide Web.
This article addresses the accessibility aspect of the advances in brain-computer interfaces and how the increasing complexity of the World Wide Web as an information intermediary may drastically change its shape when direct brain-to-brain communication becomes a reality.
In 2017, the blog Wait But Why published one of the first pieces about Elon Musk’s then newly founded company Neuralink. Tim Urban, the person behind the blog, spoke to several Neuralink team members about the start-up’s motives and explained the potential impact on humanity through various thought experiments. His way of clarifying and evaluating the bigger picture behind this exciting new tech sector provides an inspiring and compelling outlook, which was the primary motivator for me to one day enter the neurotechnology industry myself.
However, what I want to share in this article in conjunction with Tim’s thoughts from back then — most of which are still relevant — is that I try to answer the following question: What impact could brain-computer interfaces have on the use of the World Wide Web in terms of accessibility?
“I’m convinced that … [Neuralink] somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do — Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.” — Tim Urban, 2017
2. The Importance of Web Accessibility
Imagine if you had to endure the COVID-19 lockdowns without access to the World Wide Web. How would you have communicated with your family and friends? How would you have kept yourself informed? And how — depending on your profession — would you have been able to do your job at all? For some people, and even entire industries, the World Wide Web is the backbone of their existence, from googling simple questions to the most critical undertakings. The pandemic has shown how crucial access to the World Wide Web has become. And now, imagine being one of the millions of people around the world who cannot access it because of a genetic defect or a long-lasting injury that has left them handicapped and unable to operate a computer (The World Bank, 2021).
If you are, for example, blind, deaf or paraplegic, access to the World Wide Web is limited and sometimes even impossible. The definition of an inclusive website determines the amount of required work behind it to ensure the best possible accessibility for its content and functionality. Web accessibility benefits individuals, businesses, and society. It can even help your website land on a higher page rank in search engines and therefore reach more organic visitors. There are a number of best practices you can follow to visually and technically optimise your website to make it more approachable to accessibility technologies such as screen readers or alternative input devices.
Some people even go as far as creating websites with an accessibility-first mindset to be as inclusive as possible. But this is where I see a problem: Strange as it may sound, we create our websites for the devices and technologies, not for the people who want to use them. I see the same problem with mobile-first or SEO-first approaches; it is more about the devices or the crawler bots than the actual benefit to the people. If you, for example, have ever witnessed copywriters create text for search engines, you know that they are actually writing for the search engine algorithms, not the people reading them. Most modern web design and development approaches — as with web accessibility — primarily serve the middlemen, not the end-user directly.
3. The World Wide Web as a Middleman
“When two people are together and talking, they’re using 50,000-year-old technology.” — Tim Urban, 2017
In the Wait But Why blog post, Tim Urban describes how we use ancient technology to communicate with other people: natural language. Natural language has evolved roughly 50,000–100,000 years ago (Evans, 2015) and is still the primary communication technology we use today. A few adaptations and abstractions brought some advantages, for example, writing, which made it possible to communicate with another human asynchronously — regardless of time and place.
For the first time in the history of biological evolution, it was possible to pass on information to the next generations without the need for genetics. Then there was printing, then the telegraph, fax, emails, SMS and so on. And today, we have the World Wide Web, which has consolidated tons of fine-grained variations of the same basic concept: natural language, packaged in any multimedia form, asynchronously available at all times, and just a few clicks away. You can chat with someone, send them an email, write a blog post, or record a video and upload it to YouTube to let millions of people get a glimpse into your mind. The World Wide Web, like other mediums, acts as a middleman for communication: from person to person. Or as Tim Urban paraphrases Elon Musk’s thoughts: From brain to brain.
4. Worse Than Smoke Signals
Figure 3 illustrates in a simplified form how natural language — even in a face-to-face conversation — breaks down to its basic building blocks if we keep the brain-to-brain middlemen concept in our mind:
On the visualisation above, we can see the air or the telecommunication network as intermediaries to showcase the number of steps required to send information from one brain to another. In Tim’s article, he also describes the amount of time a piece of information needs to reach the other brain, be it by tapping on a keyboard or calling someone by phone. But what I would like to address is not only the time needed to send information from one brain to another but rather the amount of time and complexity required to create and orchestrate these middlemen.
The World Wide Web is, in my opinion, one of the most inefficient middlemen in that regard, even worse than creating smoke signals. The amount of complexity required to create a modern website — with good accessibility, high security, fast speed, etc. — is absurd. The more advanced a website becomes, and the more functionalities it demands, the more levels of abstractions will be added. My personal experience in the last few years has shown that the direction of this development trend seems to have no end in sight. I sometimes wonder if these fancy code-generated GraphQL queries written in TypeScript for an incrementally static server-side rendered NextJS application are even necessary when people just want to exchange information on a website. I would need to extend Tim Urban’s visualisation by at least twenty graphs if we tried to include all the technologies used to deliver brain-to-brain information by today’s standards of the World Wide Web.
The above-mentioned modern web design and development approaches only introduce more complexity for the sake of technology rather than optimising primarily for human use. It sounds legitimate if we think of all the demanding factors to include, but for me, it appears that we are only focusing on solving the issues caused by the medication for the symptoms instead of trying to treat the sickness itself. The more abstractions we create, the more we focus on these abstractions themselves rather than the underlying goals. But this is where brain-computer interfaces come into play.
5. Cutting Out The Middleman
Instead of making information intelligible to a computer, which then tries to make it understandable or as easily accessible to the human on the other side of the screen, brain-computer interfaces — or specifically the field of direct brain-to-brain communication — focus on cutting out these middlemen.
Brain-computer interfaces and direct brain-to-brain communication is particularly interesting for people with handicaps. Those who cannot speak or hear would be happy to be able to communicate with someone directly without needing their vocal cords or ears. If you do not have to access a keyboard, then a browser, then a website, only to communicate with someone in the form of text but instead can share thoughts with them by connecting directly through a brain-computer interface, we would drastically remove a lot of technological unnecessities in the middle and focus more on the quality of communication and its inclusiveness.
But what would that mean for the World Wide Web? Will we still be creating websites in the near future if direct brain-to-brain communication becomes a reality?
6. The Internet of Humans
The idea of direct brain-to-brain communication is currently still science fiction, yet it has the potential to become a reality in the upcoming decades. Certainly, we cannot predict the next 50 years in detail, just as people in the 1970s had little chance of predicting the World Wide Web in its current form. Nevertheless, if we think of the World Wide Web with its websites as a middleman between brains for the asynchronous exchange of information, we know with certainty that its shape would drastically change if its primary purpose of displaying content on a 2D display were to cease.
One of these far-fetched concepts, considering the current pace of progress in the field of neurotechnology, is the concept of the Internet of Humans. I am sure you are familiar with the term Internet of Things, which essentially describes a high level of connectivity for everyday things — specifically at home — that typically would not have connectivity to the internet in its basic form. The concept of the Internet of Humans describes almost the same thing, except that it is the concept of the connectivity directly between human bodies themselves, especially from the perspective of including the connectivity to the brain (Ziegler, 2021).
To quote Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, when he answered the question about how he sees the future of the internet, he responded with: “I will answer very simply that the internet will disappear” (Smith, n.d.). Eric Schmidt is one of the people that believe that almost everything will be connected one day and that everything will work together seamlessly. And this is already becoming a reality. I can simply control the thermostat and the lights in my flat by talking to a voice assistant, thanks to the interconnectivity of the Google voice assistant.
But now imagine that not everything, but everyone will be directly connected with each other, with all the information and control they need. Information will not just be a click away, but a thought, and all simultaneously, without the need for a website or user interface at all.
7. Just Like With Chatbots
If you have ever created a chatbot application or at least designed the conversation flow and tree-like state machine logic for it, you know what kind of mind-shift you had to go through to rethink the way of how we interact with computers. The following question should illustrate this even further: Have you ever imagined a conversation in your head and went through the possible questions and directions the conversation could lead to? Then you have created a non-linear natural language information flow like you would do — in a more technical manner — with creating chatbots. A chatbot is an entirely different approach to creating an API for a software or platform using only natural language compared to a traditional user interface.
8. No Need for a User Interface
The way we already communicate with chatbots or voice assistants is how I imagine communication between two brains on the World Wide Web of the future will be. The future website will be a UI-less, natural language-based application programming interface; interactive, intuitive and intelligent.
You think of googling something, and your brain-computer interface will connect you to google.com, searches your query and returns the most relevant entries in your brain. Instead of reading them out loud, as a voice assistant by today’s standards would do, you would actually get an overview in your head without having to read first; you simply see the information in your head and can directly comprehend it.
The use of the World Wide Web will be just a few thoughts away, and the classic use of web pages in the browser will probably feel as archaic and nostalgic as the print media query type for printing web pages in 2021; still here, but not relevant any more.
To close the gap back to web accessibility, let me introduce another scenario: When there is innovation — like the latest gadget — it is usually not designed for people with disabilities; the concerns about accessibility come later. Even when the World Wide Web was invented, it still took some years until the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines came into effect (World Wide Web Consortium, 1997). The same goes for new cars, computers and almost everything else. But this time, with brain-computer interfaces and direct brain-to-brain communication, we focus on the accessibility aspect first because this time we have to; it is the only way. There is no other middleman except accessibility itself since the connectivity, and functional use of the brain combined with a computer represents pure accessibility in its basic form.
Personally, I think this is the right direction to go, and it shows yet again that the field of neurotechnology is a whole new chapter in the evolution of humanity. To quote Bryan Johnson, CEO of Kernel: “We are about to enter into the most consequential revolution in the history of the human race where we can control our cognitive evolution” (Gaby and Southern, 2020). And the Internet of Humans will be an integral part of this — with an accessibility-first approach, not accessibility-last.
In the Wait But Why blog post, Tim Urban demonstrates very well where the development of this journey currently stands. We are precisely on the verge between indirect brain communication — the possibility of asynchronous communication with each other thanks to the World Wide Web and other time-and-place-independent mediums — and the era of direct brain-to-brain communication. With my background, especially in web development, it is difficult to accept that the World Wide Web in its current form could become obsolete in the next coming years.
The World Wide Web is just another tiny step towards the direct brain-to-brain communication era. I do not know about you, but I can only encourage you to be excited about this upcoming phase. I invite you to participate in this cultural evolution because it is for the better for humanity, everyone included.
10. List of Sources
NeuroRights Initiative (n.d.) “The Challenge: Advances in Neurotechnology Outpace Governance” Columbia University in the City of New York [online] Available at https://nri.ntc.columbia.edu (Accessed 08.07.2021)
Evans, V. (2015) “How Old Is Language?” Psychology Today [online] Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/language-in-the-mind/201502/how-old-is-language (Accessed 07.07.2021)
Fleming, S. (2019) “5 ways technology is changing how people with disabilities experience the world” Microsoft Corporation — On the Issues [online] Available at https://news.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2019/05/14/inclusive-technology-changing-people-with-disabilities-experience-world (Accessed 03.07.2021)
Gaby, E. and Southern, T. (2020) “I Am Human” 1091 Media [Film] Available at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/iamhuman1091 (Accessed 06.06.2021)
Ienca, M. and Andorno, R. (2017) “Towards new human rights in the age of neuroscience and neurotechnology” Life Sciences, Society and Policy DOI: 10.1186/s40504–017–0050–1
Pickell, D. (2019) “What Is a Voice Assistant and Are They the Future of Chatbots?” G2 [online] Available at https://www.g2.com/articles/voice-assistant (Accessed 06.07.2021)
Smith, D. (n.d.) “The Internet Will Disappear” Business Insider [online] Available at https://www.businessinsider.com/google-chief-eric-schmidt-the-internet-will-disappear-2015-1 (Accessed 05.07.2021)
The World Bank (2021) “Disability Inclusion Overview” World Bank Website Available at https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/disability (Accessed 06.07.2021)
Urban, T. (2017) “Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future” Wait But Why Blog [online] Available at https://waitbutwhy.com/2017/04/neuralink.html (Accessed 07.07.2021)
World Wide Web Consortium (1997) “W3C Launches International Program Office for WAI” W3C Press Release [online] Available at https://www.w3.org/Press/IPO-announce (Accessed 08.07.2021)
Ziegler, K.-C. (2021) “The Internet of Humans (IoH)” Digital-Commerce — Die Post [online] Available at https://digital-commerce.post.ch/en/pages/blog/2021/internet-of-humans (Accessed 07.07.2021)
Dear reader, I hope you enjoyed this article. If you have not read the original blog post this article is based on, I strongly recommend reading it afterwards. Since I just scratched a few surfaces in my article, you will gain a more in-depth understanding of Neuralink, the neurotechnology industry and the brain itself in Tim’s blog post. And since he ends his blog post with concerns about these developments, I would like to address them too. It is good to be aware that in this case, the advances in technology are coming to us; our brains. The entirety of our consciousness is inside our brains, and we also have to deal with the consequences ourselves.
There are many concerns about manipulation, privacy protection and neurohacking regarding the use of brain-computer interfaces (Ienca and Andorno, 2017). The University of Columbia in the City of New York has started an initiative that is already trying to prepare humanity for the case of advanced brain-computer interfaces, and it is called NeuroRights. I recommend taking a look at their website: https://nri.ntc.columbia.edu.
“When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, the future challenges of Neurotechnology and Artificial Intelligence could scarcely be imagined. Consequently, there are no provisions in the human rights document to tackle new risks produced by technological innovations. Rights that were once taken for granted, such as mental privacy or cognitive autonomy, have fallen into jeopardy with the advent of neurotechnologies.” — NeuroRights Initiative