Bull Session

The Race for the Brain-Computer Interface

July 13, 2017          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we discuss the race for the brain-computer interface. Voice and typing are imprecise: A link from our brain to the computer would be much more effective. While this sounds like it could be the realm of science fiction, major research efforts are already underway. For instance, social media giant Facebook is attempting to build a brain-computer interface to translate your thoughts directly to the computer screen. This effort is being led by Regina Dugan, who previously ran the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Resarch Projects Agency (DARPA) and is now in charge of Facebook’s research lab, Building 8. At the same time, DARPA is investing $65 million in new funding to develop neural implants, allowing the human brain to interact directly with computers. And Elon Musk’s new company, Neuralink is embarking on a similar mission, to link the human mind to computers via brain implants.


Facebook is developing a way to read your mind
DARPA awards $65 million to develop the perfect, tiny two-way brain-computer interface
With Neuralink, Elon Musk Promises Human-to-Human Telepathy. Don’t Believe It.
U.S. to Fund Advanced Brain-Computer Interfaces

Welcome to episode 215 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings, listeners.

For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to chat about the race for the brain-computer interface, because voice and typing are imprecise, so a link from our brains to our computers would be much more effective, don’t you agree, Dirk?

Certainly, yes. I certainly do.

There’s three recent pieces of news that are worth discussing in relation to the brain-computer interface.

Let’s start with sort of the most strange one, I think, which is that Facebook has its research and hardware lab, Building 8, is working on a product that they want you to be able to type directly from your thoughts. So this is Facebook, mind you.

Facebook has a lot of forward looking programs. Building 8 is run by Regina Dugan, who used to run Darpa. They’ve gone out and hired crazy good scientists and leaders to put together what I suppose, if I could think about typing, I would want to go on Facebook and tell you what my thoughts were, I’m not sure. But this advanced technology is being led by Darpa manager, scientist, designer and this is, I guess, part of the future of Facebook.

I’m not sure how to take it. I’ve seen varying levels of critique that, hey, because this is gonna be something outside your skull, they’re not gonna ask you to implant your Facebook sensor into your head. So I’ve seen critiques that said, “Look, you can’t really get this to happen unless something’s implantable.” But Facebook is diving head first, no pun intended, into the brain-computer interface.

Thoughts, mister Knemeyer?

Yes. Look, brain-computer is where things will be eventually, but we’re a long way away from that, I mean, at scale, right? We talk about AI and other things that are much closer to realizing. Yes, I mean, the most efficient path to communicate with machine is, of course, directly with your brain, not requiring your hands, or your eyes, or your mouth, or anything else. But getting to the point where those interfaces are useful and usable, is non-trivial.

Even now, with normal old school interfaces, it’s a pain in the butt to type in something and then have it be categorized the right way, have it tagged the right way, have it treated the right way, even in the context that we control, such as typing directly into WordPress, getting whatever you typed in to be put in the right way and in the right place.

Doing that with the reading of thoughts, which are all over the place, I mean, there’s the old … I don’t know if this was ever true, but there was the old every seven seconds a man thinks about sex, or 20 times a day, or whatever the stat was, that was a lot of times a day that men are thinking about sex. And if the machine is just peeling that out of your head all the time … But there’s a lot of unintended consequences. We’re really at stage zero of this thing.

It’s interesting to talk about and think about, and certainly as future as we think about it from the stand point of just the maturity model of where human computer interfaces are going, that’s coming. But for now, it’s exhilarating, exciting and thought provoking, but not really meaningful to us as consumers.


The second news item I wanted to highlight was that DARPA, the aforementioned Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for the US Military, has invested $65 million in new funding, to develop neural implants. So this is fundamentally different from the Facebook project, in that these are going to be implanted into human brains, and it’s meant to allow you to speak directly to a computer. And this program is called the Neural Engineering System Design Program. The idea is that there will be this high resolution signal, that will allow data transfer between the brain and the electronics.

This is more along the lines of, without sounding too outlandish, some of the concepts that we saw in the Matrix, where you’re getting information in and out. Famously in the movie, Neo learns how to be a martial artist, not because of many years of training, but because he’s downloaded the equivalent of all that training to his brain.

That seems even more far fetched to me than typing a Facebook message to you, Dirk, via my Facebook neural interface. The idea that I would be able to obtain skills, just via a download, or even let’s park that for a second, as sort of the fantasies of science fiction and say, having this high resolution implant, that allows for the transfer of information, there’s all sorts of issues around things like testing that, right? Or going through the process of making sure it’s safe for human beings to use, not to mention all the possibilities that pop up. We talk about the security of the internet of things, right? So I don’t even want to imagine what a denial-of-service attack would look like on the internet of brains, right?

So all of a sudden, my toaster just starts spamming me relentlessly. I’m trying to concentrate on something and it just keeps on saying, “Toast, toast, toast,” until I freak out.

You’d need to have an off switch like Commander Data in Start Trek Next Generation.

Exactly. I think we’ve reached the point, at least with some of our technology, where there’s this intersection with science fiction and with imagination, in such a way that it becomes a little difficult to discern the technologies that are likely to be useful and beneficial to humanity, and the technologies that we’re just pursuing because they seem cool, or interesting.

I do realize that it would be fantastic if you can use your thoughts to control things, but I am very aware of, as you said before, the unintended consequences of things. Even the simple machines we have, have unintended consequences. And I’m thinking the Matrix of unintended consequences is going to be pretty substantial.

Like I said, DARPA putting a lot of money into this, it’s probably a long way off and I think the unintended consequences are gonna be substantial.

Yes. The unintended consequences, even are relevant on the little Facebook project, right? So Facebook in what they’re doing, their systems is gonna be scanning the brain 100 times every second. Now, I’m no expert in sensor technology, but I think having your brain scanned, what would be millions of times a day, if you’re dealing with that all the time, there have to be some unintended consequences there. Or, wait, that’s probably not true. There is a likelihood that there are unintended consequences there of which, namely, the changing, or degradation of our brains is borderline catastrophic. It’s a very … we’re out there, just kind of taking a chance, taking a risk.

I’ve been taking medicine, it’s for my stomach, for years. It’s a proton pump inhibitor, it’s one that used to be a prescription, a long time ago it became over the counter. And just now, there was a study that said proton pump inhibitors, prescription proton pump inhibitors reduce your life by 20%, or something like that.

So for years and years I’ve been taking this medicine, I think it’s safe, I think it’s okay, and much later further downstream, research is coming out that’s pretty scary to say the least. And this stuff we’re doing on the brain it’s in its infancy. It doesn’t even have years of application, years of being used for the wild and testing. And we’re messing with our most vital organ and yes, the potential for unintended consequences is significant. I’m guessing there’s gonna be some college students doing some tests to make some extra money, that are gonna suffer at some point down the line.

The other thing you mentioned about security, yes. We talked a lot about security on the show and there’s definitely … anytime you’re connected to the network, there’s the possibility that there’s going to be some infiltration there. And it’s weird to think about, right?

We might not even know that we’re being infiltrated. We might just start thinking differently without knowing that the system has been taking control of. I would argue in the analog world that’s happening already with propaganda, and messaging, in just ways we don’t understand, or give enough consideration to. It’s a whole other kettle of fish.

But, DARPA is coming at it from a more strategic perspective. Facebook is coming at it from a product perspective, saying, “Hey, here’s our product. It does these specific things. We want to take this use case or small set of use cases and create a way for mind and computer interface to take care of it.” The DARPA grant is broader and it’s more about mind as a platform, as opposed to mind as a blogging tool let’s say.

Right. Mind as a platform sounds completely frightening. Yes. I don’t think I’m gonna be an early adopter, but you never know, maybe our kids will be.

No discussion about the future and future tech would be complete without some mention of Elon Musk, the famous entrepreneur and futurist. He’s recently invested sizeable sum of money, $100 million or so, into a new company called Neuralink, whose mission you can kind of guess, is to use brain implants to directly link human minds to computers.

Mister Musk is also interested in ways in which humans can integrate with AI, right? So not only are your thoughts activating whatever systems, or interacting with whatever systems, but they’re also being enhanced by AI, so you can take advantage of artificial intelligence in the most direct way, which is you’re linked into the machine and now all of a sudden you have the power of your own mind and the machine mind, and who knows where we can go from there. That’s an extremely powerful vision, I think, from Elon Musk. And I love the way all his companies seem to be right on the cutting edge of things.

In this case, once again, I’ve seen plenty of critique that this is probably far fetched futurism. But is there any benefit to us in the near term, for pushing the envelope in these ways? Is this like space exploration, right? So it sounds silly to us, it must have sounded pretty silly to folks in the early 20th century to talk about space travel, but that’s something we sort of take for granted. Or at least the ability to go into space, right?

So is this like the space race of the 21st century, the brain-computer interface?

I don’t know. I’d have to think of a metaphor. I’m not sure. The space race may or may not be right, I don’t know. I have to think about it to pinpoint a metaphor. It’s definitely … look, it’s a little bit more concrete from the stand point that there’s the possibility, going down these paths, of drastically increasing the intelligence available to us as humans. And whether that manifests as getting the most out of our brains, whether it manifests as getting the most out of a collaboration, for lack of a better word, between our brains and machines, or whether it is leveraging our brains to create the super-brains as machines only, primarily, it’s unclear. But the possibility there is significant.

And again, with global warming, which, I think, is the number one risk for all of us at this point, important. And so far, with the collective human intelligence, we haven’t managed to solve that, we haven’t managed to … we probably won’t manage to get behavior change to stop doing the stupid things we do, because we’re humans and we’re idiots. But is there a way to cool things down? Is there a way to use technology to, even while we’re wasteful and making it worse on one hand, to make it better in different ways?

So far we haven’t discovered those. But maybe with super-intelligence of some form or fashion, through the mash-up of the human brain and the machine brain, maybe we’ll have the horse power to get there. And that is, at this point, I think, really important for the human project.

Yes. Global warming is exceptionally frightening to me as well. This will be the show where Jon confesses to all his fears. But yes, yes. I would think that having, whether it’s AI, or sort of the combined power of machine intelligence and human intelligence to throw out this problem, would be pretty significant and pretty important.

Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the Thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in the Digitalife, and go to the page for this episode.

We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward, if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play. And if you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com


Listeners, if you want to get in touch with me, you can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. And thanks so much for listening.

That’s it for episode 215 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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