Friday, September 11, 2009

The telepathic communication era

Many people, including me, are now used to be always online. With my smartphone powered by Google's Android operating system, I am used to send and receive email and IMs anytime, from anywhere. It is easy to see how this trend will evolve: most routine computing applications will migrate to smartphones, the coverage and bandwidth of wireless networks will go up, and their price will go down. In only a few years, we will be used to be permanently plugged in the global Internet, and of course the user interfaces will improve. For example, as described by the visionary science fiction author Charlie Stross in his novel Halting State, augmented reality technology based on smart glasses will soon permit overcoming the limitations due to the small size of phones. A first generation of suitable smart glasses is already available, but there is something much better on the horizon: instant telepathic communication.

A few months ago a researcher sent a telepathic message to Twitter by thinking it, using his brain as a computer input device via the neural interfacing system BCI2000. The first message says just "SENT FROM BCI2000" and the second message is only a bit more explicit: "USING EEG TO SEND TWEET" but the brain wave Twitter moment has been compared to to a modern equivalent of the historical Alexander Graham Bell's "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you." message, The company Emotiv Systems launched, earlier this year, a commercial neural interface called EPOC, able to detect the user's thought and translate them to commands understandable by computer programs. The company's website has video clips showing users controlling videogames by thought alone. We can safely say that the year 2009 has marked the birth of the era of telepathic communication.

If you are not a passionate hacker, don't rush to the electronics store though: these Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) devices have still years of development to go before reaching operational maturity: the historical Twitter message took several minutes to compose and send, so don't plan to write a long love or business telepathic letter just yet. Similarly, the EPOC interface only permits very basic actions in videogames and virtual worlds at this moment, and in controlled conditions. But, of course, this will change fast. There is money to make with the countless applications of BCI technology, and our understanding of the brain, though still very limited, has already reached a critical mass. These two facts will ensure the fast development of operational, commercial BCI technology: today's slow baby-talk between the brain and the computer will give place to very fast and precise communication. And since computers are linked by the Internet, also their users' minds will be linked by the Internet: yesterday's slowly typed SMS will be replaced by tomorrow's instant, long telepathic messages. BCI technology, originated in military programs and medical research including clinical trials with severely disabled patients, is finding its way to the commercial marketplace.

Today, smartphones are replacing desktop and notebook computers, but perhaps they are only a stepping stone towards tomorrow's ultimate wearable computer: the computing device implanted directly in the brain. The team led by Ted Berger, described as The Memory Hacker by Popular Science, has spent the past decade engineering prototype memory chips that can be implanted directly in the brain. This is still very experimental research, but I think it will advance fast and reach operational maturity within the next couple of decades.

Nobody has seen and described the convergence of these trends better than Ben Goertzel, one of the world's leading experts in Artificial Intelligence. In an article titled Brain-Computer Interfacing: From Prosthetic Limbs to Telepathy Chips, Goertzel writes: "Scientists are exploring multiple radical brain imaging technologies, including devices involving carbon nanotubes and other nanotech-based materials, which seem to play more nicely with brain cells than conventional materials... And in time, even more fascinating possibilities may be realized. Consider the “telepathy chip”--a neural implant that allows the wearer to project their thoughts or feelings to others, and receive thoughts or feelings from others.".

Everyone’s mind will be permanently linked to the wireless Internet, and through the Internet to everyone else’s mind. This will trigger very radical changes. In particular telepathic groups--able to instantly share and elaborate thoughts--will produce an enormous acceleration in the development and deployment of new ideas, and cause the emergence of "group minds". And once neural communication is sufficiently deep, accurate and fast, it will be possible to transfer the informational content of a person's brain, with memories, thoughts and feelings, to a higher performance storage and processing device. This "mind uploading" technology may eventually provide practical immortality.