Defining and Altering Human Nature

In a recent interview published on H+ Magazine,  a new publication (online and print) that covers technologies that both “promise and threaten to radically alter our lives and our view of the world and ourselves,” AI expert Dr. Bruce Katz lays out a lofty vision for the emerging field of neuroengineering (a.k.a. neural engineering).

neuron-activityKatz, a lecturer, adjunct professor, and author of Neuroengineering the Future, and Digital Design, believes that, “We are on the cusp of a broad neuro-revolution, one that will radically reshape our views of perception, cognition, emotion and even personal identity.” He says that advancement in the study of neural systems and intersecting technologies is rapidly moving from perceptual aids such as cochlear implants to devices that will enhance and speed up thought. It may ultimately “free the mind from its bound state in the body to a platform independent existence,” he claims.

Technology that one day will allow for uploading of the human mind is highly controversial, helping to fuel the great singularity debate among pundits and skeptics.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, both technically or ethically, Bruce Katz raises some good points.  Armed with a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from University of Illinois, his ideas appear firmly rooted in the scientific method. And it comes through in the preface of his book, Neuroengineering the Future:

I am not the first, and certainly will not be the last, to stress the importance of coming developments in neural engineering. This field has all the hallmarks of a broad technological revolution, but larger in scope and with deeper tentacles than those accompanying both computers and the Internet…

To modify the brain is to modify not only how we perceive but what we are, our consciousnesses and our identities. The power to be able to do so cannot be over-stated, and the consequences can scarcely be imagined, especially with our current unmodified evolutionarily provided mental apparatuses…

Here are just a few topics that we will cover…

1. Brain-machine interfaces to control computers, exoskeletons, robots, and other devices with thought alone;
2. Mind-reading devices that will project the conscious contents of one’s brain onto a screen as if it was a movie;
3. Devices to enhance intellectual ability and to increase concentration;
4. Devices to enhance creativity and insight;
5. Mechanisms to upload the mind to a machine, thus preserving it from bodily decay and bodily death, assuming our mind is dependent on our brain, which I believe it is not.

Returning to the H+ interview, Katz speaks about cognitive enhancement therapies (there’s another article devoted entirely to the subject) and the legal, societal, and ethical issues surrounding neuroengineering. He then points out the “kludgy design” characteristics of the human brain that he hopes we’ll overcome in the next 20 years:

* Short-term memory limitations (typically seven plus or minus 2 items),
* Significant long-term memory limitations (the brain can only hold about as much as a PC hard disk circa 1990),
* Strong limitations on processing speed (although the brain is a highly parallel system, each neuron is a very slow processor),
* Bounds on rationality (we are less than fully impartial processors, sometimes significantly so),
* Bounds on creativity (most people go through their entire lives without making a significant creative contribution to humanity), and perhaps most significantly…
* Bounds on the number of concepts that can be entertained in consciousness at once (some estimate that the bottleneck of consciousness restricts us to one plus or minus zero items!).

“Freeing the mind from this limited, albeit remarkable, organ will allow us to manipulate thought directly, and this will produce the most gains in intelligence, creativity, and in achieving harmony with other sentient beings and the universe as a whole,” Katz told H+.

Representation of firing neurons

Representation of firing neurons

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