Sunday, February 12, 2012

New Scientist - Telempathy: A future of socially networked neurons

From the New Scientist Culture Lab column, Jens Clausen reviews the new book from Michale Chorost, World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet.

Based on the title, this sounds like this book might fall into the realm of transhumanism or singularity thinking, an accurate assumption I think, and as such it seems that there is an unrealistic (at least right now) belief in the possibilities for healing disease and transforming society.

The ever-present problem with technology like this is that there are seven billion people on the planet and only a small percentage of the live in the Western technology cultures, and even there only a small fraction of the population will be able to afford this kind of technology (the 1%). Only a small group of elites will initially benefit from this technology - and my guess is that once they have it they will not be so willing to share.

Telempathy: A future of socially networked neurons

World Wide Mind by Michael Chorost argues that we will soon be able to wire our brains directly to one another. But would you want to?

Jens Clausen, contributor

Imagine a world in which there is no need to express your thoughts or emotions in words, where you can let others experience your brain states directly. This is what Michael Chorost calls "telempathy": the ability to feel another person's emotions through a technological connection to their brain. It sounds far-fetched, but thanks to today's state-of-the-art technology, it may not be impossible.

In fact, Chorost knows first-hand what it means to wire your brain directly to an electronic device. In his first book, Rebuilt: How becoming part computer made me more human (Souvenir Press, 2006), Chorost related his own experience of receiving a cochlear implant after becoming deaf. In World Wide Mind, he once again offers an impressively vivid story, and it is a pleasure to follow him into his envisioned future of human beings with directly connected brains - a scenario that would render web-based social networks like Facebook obsolete, as information would flow directly through social networks of brains. The World Wide Web would be supplanted by the world wide mind.

Today's clinical applications of brain-computer interfaces include those based on electroencephalography (EEG), which can be used to enable severely paralysed people to operate a computer with their thoughts, and deep-brain stimulators, used to treat the motor symptoms in Parkinson's disease and dystonia.

These sophisticated technologies appear outdated by comparison with what is in Chorost's book. What Chorost needs to achieve total telempathy are nanowires snaking through the brain's capillaries, sending and receiving information, and optogenetics - laser beams that can activate and deactivate single neurons according to the light's wavelength. Nanowires have already been shown to grow in rodent brains, and optogenetics has been used in rodents to trigger individual memories and generate specific behaviours.

However, in his technophile mission Chorost sometimes overestimates technology. Optogenetics is presented not only as a promising tool for basic research but also as a round-the-corner therapy for Parkinson's disease, one without any side effects, and this is presented as mere "low hanging fruit". That would be great, but is at best highly optimistic. While there are therapies that utilise l-dopa and deep-brain stimulation (DBS), there is currently no cure for Parkinson's, and unrealistic expectations of DBS are already a cause of post-surgical disappointment. The unknown impact of a highly investigational tool should be presented much more carefully.

There are also practical obstacles. For instance, while children are the likely early adopters of world-wide-mind technology, how many parents will consent to elective open-brain surgery on their offspring, and how many physicians will provide it? Chorost argues that if these devices develop as quickly as cochlear implants did, they will likewise be viewed as routine. But that misses a crucial point: surgery for cochlear implants, which involves drilling into the skull, is not without risk, but it is justified by the therapeutic benefit. There is no comparable benefit in sight for elective brain surgery.

World Wide Mind is a thought-provoking story about how technology will connect with the brain ever more intimately, merging humanity and the internet, providing technologically shared experiences and emotions. It forces the reader to think again - not just about neuro-technology but also about communication, about how important eye-to-eye and body-to-body contact is. Setting aside the risks of surgery, less technophilic readers may nevertheless ask, why should we want to establish a global emotional network? But this may just be a daft question from an old-fashioned mind that has yet to sign up for a Facebook account.

Jens Clausen is an assistant professor at the Institute for Ethics and History in Medicine in Tübingen, Germany
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