One morning in a not-too-distant future, you're reading a news article suspended in the air with your nano-wafer contacts while on the way to work in a driverless flying taxi. Suddenly, your wife calls you. Instead of picking up the smartphone, you accept the "call" with a flicker of thought, and her voice fills your mind as she reminds you that the kids have swimming lessons today.
The late author Iain Banks imagined a similar world where humans can communicate mentally with each other and with machines in his acclaimed The Culture series. Brain-to-brain interfaces may be the stuff of science fiction, but scientists and visionary entrepreneurs are working toward realizing that world today.
A recent MIT study outlines a device that allows the wearer to interact with a computer without speaking aloud or typing. The device, called "AlterEgo," picks up on neuromuscular signals to reconstruct what you say, then relays that to a computer.
Arnav Kapur, one of the paper's authors, told Popular Science that it's not exactly speaking or thinking, but more like telling a computer – such as Siri or Alexa – what to do by talking silently to yourself without moving your mouth.
The tech is still in its prototype stage as the study's authors say they hope to expand the vocabulary that the device can interpret, but it shows us that current technological trends can eventually free humans from the shackles of speech.
Rajesh Rao came even closer in 2013. Back then, the University of Washington researcher successfully controlled his colleague's hand – with his brain. In the first demonstration of human brain-to-brain communication, Rao was able to move researcher Andrea Stocco's right index finger simply by imagining the motion while playing a video game, according to a university press release. Both were on opposite sides of the campus wearing caps fitted with electrodes to pick up the brain's electrical signals, which were then transmitted over the Internet.
Even Elon Musk, the eccentric billionaire entrepreneur who has his fingers in rockets and electric vehicles, jumped into the fray by co-founding Neuralink. He plans to fully develop brain-machine interfaces with tech inspired by Banks called "neural lace," which are electrodes implanted in the brain to augment our minds with the computing power of machines.
If realized, such technology would yield endless possibilities, such as allowing us to absorb and process information at tremendous speeds, and helping those with memory loss by enhancing their cognitive capabilities.
But, as with many of Musk's endeavors, his involvement in this enterprise is intended to address a greater concern. In the age of AI, he said at a 2017 summit in Dubai, humans must merge with machines to stay competitive. There is a growing worry that a society run by intelligent machines would cause mass unemployment, while more optimistic scenarios – such as those depicted by Banks – paint a world where humans enjoy limitless material abundance and freedom from labor thanks to automation.
Some think that humans must either merge with machines to become "cyborgs," or have machines rule over us once they become superior. /VCG Photo
Widespread use of tech-enabled telepathy and superhuman cognition seems far into the future. Kapur's "AlterEgo" takes up half your face and Rao's brain caps have wires connected to a machine, all of which are rather obtrusive designs that would get more than a few stares in public.
But wearable technology has a habit of becoming intimate. When such devices are no longer mere extensions of our capabilities but challenge our very notions of humanity, will we eagerly adopt them? Most likely – as long as we look good doing so.