Humanity could be on the verge of an unprecedented merging of human biology with advanced technology, fusing our thoughts and knowledge directly with the cloud in real-time – and this incredible turning point may be just decades away, scientists say.
In a new research paper exploring what they call the 'human brain/cloud interface', scientists explain the technological underpinnings of what such a future system might be, and also address the barriers we'll need to address before this sci-fi dream becomes reality.
At its core, the brain/cloud interface (B/CI) is likely to be made possible by imminent advances in the field of nanorobotics, proposes the team led by senior author and nanotechnology researcher Robert Freitas Jr from the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing in California.
Nanobots – incredibly tiny machines smaller than the width of a human hair – are expected to one day benefit humans and the planet in all manner of ways, but it'll take a particular kind to achieve the B/CI: neuralnanorobotics.
"These devices would navigate the human vasculature, cross the blood-brain barrier, and precisely autoposition themselves among, or even within brain cells," says Freitas.
"They would then wirelessly transmit encoded information to and from a cloud-based supercomputer network for real-time brain-state monitoring and data extraction."
So far, so Matrix, so Borg. But just because it sounds incredibly like fantastic science fiction, doesn't mean it's only a fantasy. In a sense, we're already half-way there.
Consider that only a few short decades ago, the internet as we know it today didn't exist at all. In the rapid evolution of the technology since then, we now interface with this connected hub of information through much of our waking life.
For better or worse (hopefully better), this hypothetical B/CI medium would represent the ultimate continuation of that trajectory, and while we're not there yet, we're getting awfully close.
Last year, scientists announced a three-way brain connection technology called BrainNet that enabled three people to share their thoughts and even play a game together via the cloud, using only their minds.
Milestones like that are simultaneously mind-blowing and, in a way, primitive, in that they represent just baby steps in what an advanced B/CI vision could one day become.
"[BrainNet] used electrical signals recorded through the skull of 'senders' and magnetic stimulation through the skull of 'receivers,' allowing for performing cooperative tasks," says nanotechnology scientist Nuno Martins from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
"With the advance of neuralnanorobotics, we envisage the future creation of 'superbrains' that can harness the thoughts and thinking power of any number of humans and machines in real-time."
According to Martins, these kinds of brain-connective technologies – spruiked by a range of visionaries from futurists like Ray Kurzweil and tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk (and his Neuralink venture) – could one day revolutionise democracy and unite people across cultural divides.
As for when we can expect this B/CI tech utopia to emerge, the researchers can't say for sure, but predict in their paper that it could be a possibility within "the next few decades".
Whether or not we meet that ambitious deadline will involve devising the right kind of scientific and technological solutions to make the B/CI work as envisaged.
Perhaps the greatest hurdles will be figuring out ways to safely integrate neural nanorobots with the human brain tissue, and in a way that enables these little helpers to transmit vast amounts of data generated and relayed by supercomputers into our grey matter, without creating a bottleneck effect.
"This challenge includes not only finding the bandwidth for global data transmission," says Martins, "but also, how to enable data exchange with neurons via tiny devices embedded deep in the brain."
All in all, we're still a long way off realising this wild techno-dream. But we're also closer than we've ever been before – a place that's both exciting, and scary.
The findings are reported in Frontiers in Neuroscience.