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Hacking is what happens when nefarious outside sources try to break into computer systems to get to sensitive data or to plant malware. It costs governments and corporates billions of dollars each year in damages and reputation management. But scientists have now developed technology that could see people hacking the human brain. Humans have been trying to hack the human body and mind with the likes of drugs, smokes, alcohol, and coffee, since the dawn of time. The only difference now is that we have empirical evidence to know which techniques work and which don’t. What does all this mean for the way we live our lives?
It should come as no surprise that every app on your phone is calibrated to keep you using it as long as possible. Some smart person in a lab somewhere figured out what was needed to optimize the interaction between you and your phone and then executed that. Smartphone dependency and its effects on the brain is a cause for concern. But something has arrived that could be even more concerning. Scientists call them brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). They’re effectively microchips that are embedded in the brain to literally connect our minds to computers: brain chips.
With the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg throwing their weight behind the development of BCIs, it won’t be long before this is household technology. Imagine using Facebook without typing, or driving a Tesla vehicle with only your mind. Zuckerberg has said that he envisions a platform that “lets you communicate using only your mind” and has backed his company’s experimental technologies division with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. Elon Musk’s vision goes even further than Zuckerberg’s. Musk wants to create a brain chip that both sends and receives information.
The possibilities of BCIs are both exciting and extremely frightening. The ability to communicate with people using your thought, for example: very cool. The thought of a cybercriminal hacking and controlling your mind: not so much. Uploading a digital textbook to your memory the night before an exam: extremely cool. Having your entire memory erased or replaced with fake memories: extremely uncool.
These are the sort of dynamics that this field is playing with. And, while leveraging artificial intelligence to make us smarter and more efficient would be great, creating artificial intelligence that could grow much smarter and more powerful than us is the stuff of nightmares and science-fiction movies.
Neuroscientist Jack Gallant at the University of California is working on translating the thoughts our brains have into words. Gallant and his colleagues showed people different images while measuring their brain activity. From this data, Gallant and his team have been able to reconstruct the approximate images people saw. Taking it further, the scientists are using this data to develop a dictionary of sorts that allows them to guess what people are thinking about the images they’re seeing.
And some are taking it even further. Chris Berka, another American neuroscientist, is focusing on how this relates to athletes and professional sports and whether he can tap into the state of extreme mental focus that sportspeople refer to as “being in the zone”. This zone state has a particular signature in the brain’s activity. Berka and his team are looking at ways for athletes to induce this state with reduced effort and for prolonged periods of time. Essentially, they’re searching for ways that athletes can hack their own brains to improve performance.
Just how far are we from having artificial intelligence control our minds? Well, have a look at our recent article that outlines some of the latest AI technology from around the world, and see for yourself.
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