Fire, wheels, printing presses, steam engines, transistors and ... the singularity? These are all (or will be) human inventions. Humanity has been inventing or discovering since the dawn of the first humans. These additions to human knowledge have accumulated over time to drastically change the environment humans exist in. Despite the extensive array of improvements, humanity's inbuilt hardware has roughly stayed the same.
But what is it that sets us apart hardware-wise from other species?
Bigger brains, right? No, for example, the whale mind is significantly larger, it's not even close. The average adult sperm whale has a brain size of 8000 cm³ vs our own 1300 cm³. Despite having a far greater brain size I'm pretty sure they haven't achieved anything close to visiting space, atomic fission or even driving around in a car.
Special brain parts? Bingo. A special part of a mammalian brain is the neocortex, which is associated with higher-order abilities such as sensory perception, cognition, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning and language, an important part to say the least. The neocortex is located around the edges of the brain, which has most of the grey brain matter. Grey brain matter has been strongly correlated to things like IQ, memory, spatial awareness and musical talent. The key thing that sets apart human brains from other brains is the size of this neocortex, a lot of other species have a neocortex however the human neocortex is significantly larger.
But why are we talking about this?
Many speculate that since most of humanity lives in what is called the evolutionary shadow, the stage at which we are no longer affected by the seemingly omnipotent evolution, that the next stage of evolution will be another neocortex like cortex, but this time made of silicone and transistors instead of neurons.
The brain already runs on electrical impulses, like a computer, though, instead of relying on transistors to do different computations, it instead is one large and extremely complex neural network made of physical neurons. You may notice, it's not too different from a computer which emulates neurons in the form of matrices.
As technology improves, there are many who believe and some who even hope that we will merge our brains with computers. This potential next step of evolution will bring so many advantages that someone who exists in this era might not even relate to common problems such as loneliness which plague the upcoming generations, after all, we can finally live in a true combined consciousness where the idea of the ego itself doesn't exist.
Thinking about digital consciousness is getting a bit ahead of ourselves, I concede, we haven't even got a computer that can communicate information accurately with a brain, right?
Neuralink is an American startup founded by the famous Elon Musk. The company's aim: creating the world's first high-bandwidth brain-to-computer interface to augment the abilities of the human brain; and according to Elon Musk, they are close to a release.
In a typical cryptic corporate fashion, without providing any further information, Elon claimed on Twitter that the announcement will be "coming soon".
The website, www.neuralink.com, claims to be developing a "ultra-high bandwidth connection between the human brain and computers"
Mr Musk has frequently claimed the rapid rise of artificial intelligence poses an existential risk to humanity. Such an interface, he says, is essential if humans are to compete with such technology in the future.
As AI technology has improved over years and years of research, and human innovation, a lot of thinkers have realised that at the current pace, artificial intelligence is en-route to overtaking the thought-power of the human brain, the so-called and rightfully feared singularity. Conceptually, the singularity is a nearly omniscient being that cannot be reckoned with, that is of course unless we become singularities ourselves.
Elon Musk, and many other great people of our era, including Stephen Hawkings, have recognised the great danger AI poses to humanity, the latter stating "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race". This is why Elon Musk states that an interface that allows us to directly communicate with computers is essential for humanity to maintain competitiveness with our creations and to not end up like "house pets" of AI machines.
No one likes being a pet of someone far greater and the clear solution from here on out is to improve ourselves and rise to the future standard that a singularity will set, and that is to have something that builds onto our brain and acts like a neo-neocortex, but running on the ever-improving power of computers and as Musk stated, "effectively merge with AI".
Despite the technology’s potential to augment the human brain, experts have warned that brain-computer interfaces risk being hijacked by rogue artificial intelligence.
Technology has always augmented our daily lives, smart-phones, smart-cars, smart-fridge even smart-gloves. The common problem behind all these technologies is that they all add one more potential point of failure against malicious attackers. But so far it's not been that bad; if someone hacks into your fridge, what are they gonna do? Spoil the milk?
But now this changes, a smart extension to our brain is something that directly contains to us, it doesn't even go through our body like smart wearables, instead, it directly connects to "us": our brain, our thoughts, our memories. A hacker could make our brain feel things, influence us and add another point of control to humans.
Hackers may be one thing, but corporations are far more daunting. Many corporations already rely on what are essentially cheap mental tricks to sway you, a controversial tactic called nudging. Ever notice how a crisp packet makes a noise that makes you want to rip your ears out? Well, the same noise makes a hungry person want to eat crisps, and that's no coincidence. Crisp companies designed packets that make more noise for this reason, and they're not on their own, Coca Cola designed special cans that make a unique and loud click when "cracked" open. This again is no coincidence. If companies are willing to redesign items to nudge customers, more greedy corporations will certainly try and manipulate a potential customer into becoming a source of income.
But what's more, is that we are en route to a world where we can see and understand someone's underlying mental processes through a connection, what they're perceiving and what is going through their mind. For example, there's already AIs that have managed to connect different neurons firing in our brain to images and words; though this means someone deaf can finally speak, this also means that this adds another point of privacy breaches, manipulation and a point of weakness for malice to exploit.
Though we are far from seeing anything close to an AI that lives in our heads, we can speculate and understand that in order for this technology to truly reap benefits, it needs to be developed in an ethical fashion. The benefits are endless, but so too are the risks if the technology falls into the wrong hands.