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BusinessDay: Computerising the brain: the next frontier in human evolution

By Johan Steyn, 17 August 2021

The working of the brain has been studied for a long time. Technology such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scans) and computerised tomography (CAT scans) have been used to produce detailed images of the brain. They can assist doctors in detecting and diagnosing diseases such as cancer, stroke causes, and vascular dementia.

If technology can see the brain functioning, can it also read our minds? The mind is not an organ, but the brain is. It is the physical location of the mind, a container for the electrical impulses that give rise to thinking. Your movements, your organism, your activities, and the transmission of impulses are all coordinated by the brain. However, you think with your mind. You can think about what happened, what is coming up, and what might happen.

The latest technology in brain reading is the brain-computer interface. The brain may be controlled by a variety of elements, all of which can be manipulated by devices implanted in the neural network. In the realm of neurotechnology, it represents a new form of technological integration.

Neuralink, founded in 2016 by Elon Musk and others, aims to create a brain-computer connection by implanting electrodes in the brain. In the near term, Neuralink plans to develop devices to cure major brain disorders, but the long-term objective is human improvement, known as transhumanism.

The goal of neurotechnology is not only to read our brains, or to send electronic instructions, but also to receive instructions from the brain. For decades we have used our hands to send commands to computers via a keyboard or mouse. Lately, we have been able to use our voices and speak commands to our electronic counterparts.

But what if we can simply think and the computer will understand and execute? Or, and this is where the ethical challenges come in, what if computers can influence how we think, what we think, and control us? Imagine the repercussions on privacy and on the very foundations of democracy itself.

The “Recommendation on Responsible Neurotechnology Innovation”, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, addresses a range of unique ethical, legal, and societal questions. “These questions include issues of (brain) data privacy, the prospects of human enhancement, the regulation and marketing of direct-to-consumer devices, the vulnerability of cognitive patterns for commercial or political manipulation, and further inequalities in use and access.”

It seems that the development of brain-computer interface technology is the gold rush of our era. Large organisations and governments are investing billions into this new age of technological colonisation.

Musk says that he wants to create a “superintelligence layer” in the human brain to help safeguard humanity against artificial intelligence, while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated that he wants people to be able to post their ideas and emotions on the internet without having to type.

Our thoughts are perhaps the most private part of our existence. If I am able to upload my thoughts, others will be able to download them. British writer George Orwell warned us a long time ago against the “thought police” who discover and punish thought crime: personal and political thoughts unapproved by the regime.

• Johan Steyn is a smart automation & artificial intelligence thought leader and management consultant. He is the chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA. He writes in his personal capacity.


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