As we may think and be: brain-computer interfaces to expand the substrate of mind

  • Serruya M
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Over a half-century ago, the scientist Vannevar Bush explored the conundrum of how to tap the exponentially rising sea of human knowledge for the betterment of humanity. In his description of a hypothetical electronic library he dubbed the memex, he anticipated internet search and online encyclopedias (Bush, 1945). By blurring the boundary between brain and computer, BCI could lead to more efficient use of electronic resources (Schalk, 2008). The advantage of the well-designed direct interface is not simply the discarding of a cumbersome mouse or keyboard in exchange for whispered thought, but the creation of a new, fundamental language bridging essential brain states to discrete items and functions in computers. Should we achieve such BCI integration, we would come up against the attentional, multi-tasking and global processing limitations of the brain. Both in terms of overall spatial architecture and in moment-to-moment engagement of the world, we appear to have a limited amount of real-estate or bandwidth to work with (Müller et al., 2003; Busse et al., 2005). Just as a stroke may take away a person's ability to do something-such a perceive half the world, or be able to speak-so too one might wonder whether adding on to the brain, at a direct biological level, might provide us with new abilities. We could expand the substrate of the mind itself rather than merely interfacing it to external computers. Components of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) could be rearranged to create brain-brain interfaces, or tightly interconnected links between a person's brain and ectopic neural modules (Serruya and Kahana, 2008). Such modules-whether sitting in a bubbling Petri dish, rendered in reciprocally linked integrated circuits, or implanted in our belly-would mark the first step on to a path of breaking out of the limitations imposed by our phylogenetic past (O'Doherty et al., 2011; Deadwyler et al., 2013; Vidu et al., 2014). Constructed properly, this system could allow us to experience sensations and movements here fore only granted to other animals-perceiving in true infrared or ultraviolet rather than false-color extrapolations-and we could begin building an architecture to interface with abstract data forms, and indeed with other people, otherwise not possible in 2015. We could extend our nervous systems beyond being a puppeteer of individual vehicles toward being a conductor of swarms of robots, flocks of mechanical birds and fish to change shape and form at our will. Just as vision, sight and touch have their own dedicated neural pathways, we could create novel "search organs" to navigate the internet or large databases, to "feel" molecular structures or social network information. While we can learn to pay attention to multiple things simultaneously, there appears to be an upper limit to our moment-to-moment information processing capacity after which performance on any given sub-task breaks down (Busse et al., 2005; Dugué et al., 2014). Our brains operate as if having a single attentional spotlight for conscious perception-even if multiple items may be continuously processed in parallel in the unconscious background, reaching conscious perception only when called upon or relevant (Müller et al., 2003; McAlonan et al., 2006).The use of shortcuts or macros are ubiquitous in computer use; by recording a complex series of steps and providing a rule, a macro can allow a computer to blindly repeat the steps and free the human operator. Yet the problem is precisely that the computer is blind: if a file name or operation




Serruya, M. D. (2015). As we may think and be: brain-computer interfaces to expand the substrate of mind. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 9.

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