On the human substrate, and how we can change it

There’s lots of ways to be as a person, and some people express their deep appreciation in different ways.
But one of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there.
But somehow, in the act of making something with a great deal of care and love, something is transmitted there. And it’s a way of expressing to the rest of our species our deep appreciation. So, we need to be true to who we are and remember what’s really important to us.

-Steve Jobs, in the iPhone X launch video (apologies for the triteness of using a Jobs quote, it’s just really damn good)

My “default mode” is to ruminate on the workings of my mind, the workings of the other minds around me, how I interact with those minds, and how they interact with each other. It’s not surprising, then, that I’ve recently fallen in love with neuroscience. I’ve been inhaling knowledge and theories deeply; I’ve been enjoying the taste of motor pathways, the scent of sensory transduction specializations, the coolness of hemispheric lateralization. In other words, I’ve been consuming.

But: I’ll inevitably leave this world one day, and my knowledge will go away. Whatever understanding I’ll have gained of people, how they work, and how they can lead positive lives — gone. This learning is, alone, a selfish pursuit…unless I use it for something other than my own satisfaction. A friend recently recounted to me advice offered by her dad:

“You are what you produce, not what you consume.”

I don’t think I could live with myself if I were to leave the world without first giving something to it (pardon the paradox). Something that outlasts me. Something that lets me say “hey, thanks, I appreciate you in a really profound way.” A contribution of the type alluded to by Steve Jobs.

I appreciate the world deeply. The people in my life are magnificent beyond what I can reasonably expect to convey with words (except by telling you that I can’t convey it with words). I’ve encountered art that makes me feel real things (see, for example, Boyhood). I go to a coffee shop that literally feels like a home. I have a new workout buddy, at long last.

And so I’m inspired by Jobs to ask myself: what do I want to give to the world? What do I want to make that outlasts me and therefore “express[es] to the rest of our species [my] deep appreciation?”

The answer I’ve come to is that I want to make it better to be a human. Our cultures, our societies, our nations — they all pour countless effort into this (hopefully…). Pursuing peace instead of war. Infrastructure. Food proliferation. Economic productivity. Entertainment. Art. Medicine. Most of the structures in our civilizations are dedicated to making the human experience better. Clearly, though, there’s still enormous suffering innate to being alive as a human being. To tremendously simplify, let’s say that the human brain consumes inputs from the world, and produces thoughts, feelings, and actions as outputs. These civilization structures all try to change inputs.

I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate innate suffering simply by changing the inputs…so, I have a hypothesis. My hypothesis is that in order to eliminate suffering, I ought to look to the substrate on which the human experience exists: the brain. Specifically, I need to interface with the brain — and hence, I look to the field of brain-computer interfaces as a way to produce something that outlasts me. I want to produce a change in the human experience that reduces suffering.

This piece you’re reading right now is the first in a publication I’m calling The Substrate, which is about brain-computer interfaces and how they can improve the experience of being a human.

Therapies vs. Augmentations

There are two broad approaches to improving the human experience with brain-computer interfaces (BCI; a.k.a brain machine interfaces or BMIs; a.k.a neural implants).

The first approach is therapeutic. Millions of people have a quality of life which has been significantly reduced by nervous system damage—paralysis, inflammatory disease, stroke-induced loss of movement, blindness, etc. (I use “etc.” here in the gravest of ways). The frontier of BCIs is therapeutic: returning movement to a paralyzed limb, running a current through a nerve to reduce the symptoms of inflammatory disease, helping a stroke victim learn to move their arm again, implanting a device into the retina to help stimulate cells that send visual signals to the brain, and many more.

Much of the funding for BCI research, and much of the industry work to monetize these technologies, is necessarily focused on therapeutic applications of nervous system implants. If you’re interested in learning more, the Neural Implant Podcast is an incredible resource (I’d know; I listened to ~30 of the podcast episodes over the span of a week, and I can happily report that I learned a lot).

The second approach to improving the human experience is augmentative. It’s an approach which aims to make humans into “superhumans” by plugging a device into their nervous systems (disclaimer: I detest the frivolity implied by “superhumans”, but the word is apt in the sense of “more than human”). For me, as someone who loves people and spending time around them, perhaps the most compelling type of augmentation would be technology that enables direct communication between brains. I find some of my most qualitatively human moments to be those spent engaging with other humans.

Therapeutic BCI will be funded sooner, and will mitigate more acute suffering, than augmentative BCI. Most of the work in the small but growing field is focused on helping people, and overlaps significantly with the world of medicine.

Augmentative BCI, on the other hand, feels uniquely human in that it allows us, with our intellect and imagination, to rethink the everyday experience of being a human in order to improve the baseline human experience. A herculean task, with profound ethical implications.

The goal of The Substrate, and my inspiration

I’m addicted to my Facebook News Feed. I mindlessly extract my phone from my pocket, let it scan my face, open Safari, go to facebook.com (I deleted the app), and start scrolling…all without any conscious awareness that I’m doing it. After a few flicks of my thumb, then I start to notice.

So what would happen if I could access Facebook posts simply by thinking? Or Snapchat stories that are neural virtual reality instead of iPhone videos? This seems like it could horribly exacerbate the addictive nature of platforms that provide human experience on demand.

This kind of social-media-meets-BCI— at least in principle — is feasible through the use of an implant that can both read from, and write to, neurons in the brain’s cortex (although it’s probably pretty far off). This is brain-brain communication, and it’s on a DARPA-funded journey from science fiction to science reality—a journey that culminates with an open Pandora’s box filled with issues of privacy, addiction, human agency, human identity, and philosophy.

I contrast this dystopic vision with a vision I personally look forward to: the ability to communicate in polysensory, multimodal ways. The ability to communicate a visceral sensation, perhaps in addition to the words I use to describe it. Effective communication is one basis for the success of human civilization (and for me, a source of joy in life), and I think multimodal brain-brain communication could make us better communicators by leaps and bounds!

Therapeutic BCIs are the first step forward, and it’s hard to argue against their merits; augmentative BCIs come later, but despite potential positives—like multimodal communication—that bring humans closer, the potential for negatives like addictive human-experience-on-demand is strong as well.

If the designers of new human experiences are more attentive to institutional incentives (e.g. governmental or fiscal) than to human impact, then the potential for ultimately using BCI to make it more positive to be a human could go wildly astray.

It’s my goal, therefore, to use this publication to craft a conversation around brain technology that is pessimistically optimistic. That is: move forward with excitement, but be as careful as we can at every step.

What you’ll find on The Substrate

  • I’ll write weekly posts corresponding to the wonderful Neural Implant Podcast: each of these posts will summarize the topic of each week’s episode, sometimes dive into the associated academic literature, and always offer some of my own thoughts.
  • As I learn more and more about brain-computer interfaces in academia and in industry, I’ll write about my corresponding theses/hypotheses. Disclaimer: these are my thoughts and mine alone, and they could easily change over time! I think it’s incredibly important for me to be transparent with my learning process, so I’ll acknowledge it when I turn out to be wrong, or if an opinion changes. Minimize authorial pride, maximize effective discourse.
  • Guest posts! Do you want to teach about something in particular? Do you want to make an argument for *insert your favorite method of interfacing with the brain*? I’d love to have you :) Just reach out at hello@thesubstrate.com.
  • Wild card…who knows!

My hope is that together, through learning and conversation and imagination and ethical mindsets, we can humanely make it better to be a human…that we can humanely change The Substrate.