Neural augmentation

Most of my friends know that I'm a bit of a technology junkie. Technology and its potential ramifications excite me. Profoundly. I've been thinking a lot recently, about neural augmentation. As a professional photographer with Parkinson's disease, you can imagine how exciting—and frightening—the idea of being able to control a camera with my mind must be.

Neural augmentation, also known as brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) or neural interfaces, is at the cutting edge intersection of neuroscience, engineering, and computer science. It involves the development of technologies that enable direct communication between the human brain and external devices, such as computers or prosthetic limbs, bypassing traditional input mechanisms like keyboards or touchscreens. The ultimate goal of neural augmentation is to enhance human capabilities, ranging from cognitive functions to motor control, by seamlessly integrating the brain with digital systems.

Imagine how incredible it would be for an amputee to visit a hospital, have them attach a prosthetic limb, link the interface, and then just walk out as if nothing had happened.

One prominent example of neural augmentation technology is Elon Musk's Neuralink. Founded in 2016, Neuralink aims to develop high-bandwidth brain-machine interfaces capable of both reading and writing neural activity. The company's groundbreaking approach involves implanting tiny electrode threads directly into the brain, enabling bidirectional communication between neurons and external devices.

The potential applications of Neuralink's technology are vast and multifaceted. For instance, in the realm of healthcare, neural augmentation could revolutionize the treatment of neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease or epilepsy. By precisely modulating neural activity, BCIs could alleviate symptoms and improve patients' quality of life. Additionally, neural interfaces hold promise for restoring motor function to individuals with spinal cord injuries or limb amputations. By decoding neural signals associated with movement, BCIs could enable users to control prosthetic limbs or exoskeletons with unprecedented precision and fluidity.

Another organisation that is involved with neural augmentation technology is BrainGate, a research consortium focused on developing BCIs for individuals with paralysis. BrainGate's flagship product, the BrainGate Neural Interface System, uses implanted electrode arrays to record neural activity in the motor cortex. By decoding these neural signals, users can control external devices, such as computer cursors or robotic arms, with their thoughts alone. Clinical trials of the BrainGate system have demonstrated remarkable success, enabling paralyzed individuals to perform tasks ranging from typing on a keyboard to feeding themselves using a robotic arm.

When I was a child, there was a movie called the Six Million Dollar Man. The main protagonist was a man called Austin who worked for NASA. Following a mishap, a secret government department spent millions of dollars ($6,000,000 to be precise), implanting bionic limbs that gave him enhanced strength, agility and vision. The movie and subsequent series were about his adventures as a covert operative.

The Six Million Dollar Man became an international success, being screened in over 70 countries, and implanted itself into the mind and dreams of a generation of young boys.

This is no longer a work of fantasy. Within decades, stories like Austin’s will be reality.

In addition to invasive approaches like Neuralink and BrainGate, researchers are also exploring non-invasive methods of neural augmentation, such as electroencephalography (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). These techniques involve measuring brain activity from outside the skull using electrodes or light sensors, respectively. While non-invasive BCIs offer certain advantages in terms of safety and accessibility, they typically provide lower resolution and require more complex signal processing algorithms compared to invasive methods.

Beyond healthcare, neural augmentation has profound implications for human-computer interaction in creative expression. This is what really excites me.

Imagine a world where artists can paint masterpieces using only their thoughts, musicians can compose symphonies without ever touching an instrument, or writers can transcribe their thoughts directly from brain to text. 

In this thought experiment let's go one step further: imagine the hitherto implausible potential for collaboration. What masterpiece would Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali have created when connected to a networked neural digital interface? Imagine a collaborative work between Mozart and Beethoven. What wonders would be possible?

And photography? I believe in 100 years, the professional photographer will cease to exist. I think photography will remain, but as an art form, a means of creative expression. But that's just me (you know we'll come back to this in a later post)!


Neural interfaces offer the potential to democratize creativity, allowing individuals to bypass the limitations of traditional tools and mediums and express themselves in entirely new ways. Overall, neural augmentation represents a paradigm shift in our relationship with technology, blurring the lines between mind and machine in unprecedented ways. 

As researchers continue to refine and expand upon existing neural interface technologies, the possibilities for enhancing human cognition, communication, and creativity are virtually limitless. It's exciting, but frightening stuff. I believe that in a few decades from now, we will see self sufficient advances in robotics and neural augmentation, for a lot of these things to become reality. 

However, alongside these exciting opportunities come important ethical and societal considerations, including issues of privacy, consent, and equitable access. As we navigate the future of neural augmentation, it will be essential to prioritize ethical principles and ensure that these transformative technologies are developed and deployed in a responsible and inclusive manner.

Remember the Borg and their (it’s?) hive mind from Star Trek? It's not much of a stretch of the imagination to picture a well-funded warlord, hiding in some remote part of the world, running a terrorist organisation with a hive mind.

That's what I lose sleep over.


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