I've being doing some catch up reading, and as it is the end of the year it is also a good time to think about the past and the future. Speaking of the future, I was interested to see an article in the November issue (I did say I had to catch up on reading) of Scientific America titled Jacking into the Brain: Is the Brain the Ultimate Computer Interface?
So what is all this about? Well, imaging being able to plug your brain into a computer (or a USB stick) and down load the complete works of Shakespeare, or War and Peace, or a technical manual directly into your brain. Imagine being able to plug your brain into all the books on Amazon. Imagine being able to download study notes while you sleep. This article is about whether this is possible, and what are the issues. Who knows, combined with a semantic web type product that watches what you download, there may even come a day when the information that interests you is downloaded into your mind without the need for you to go out and find it. Now what would this do to learning and libraries?
Though we know a lot about neuroscience, there is still so much we don't know. So this cyberpunk fantasy is still a long, long way off. And as any student who has photocopied or downloaded pages and pages of material for an assignment can tell you, there is a BIG difference between downloading information, processing information, and UNDERSTANDING information. So breath easy, it looks like there will be lots of sleeps before (as in the Matrix film) you can download a manual on how to drive a helicopter and then off you go.
This said, there is some really interesting and important work being done in the area of Machine / Mind interfaces. For example, there is work being done that allows amputees to control prosthetic devices by thought.
However, one of the really fascinating sections of this Scientific America article dealt with the way we would have to translate a machine's thoughts (binary code) into human thoughts. While even the most powerful computer in the world still basically operates by processing lots of 1 ons and 0 offs, it appears that the 'binary code' of the mind is much more varied, multi-dimensional, and subtle. The "oldest notion [we have to explain neural activity] is that a rate of code is made up of voltage spikes when a neuron fires in a given interval". However, it appears that there is much more going on within each spike, and the most advanced research suggests that patterns of brain activity are also influenced by the interaction between groups of neurons firing in both space and time. So much for the boring and simple binary code.