If only I’d paid more attention in science class. It’s just that at the time, memorising the parts of a flower didn’t really appeal to me. If during my first science lesson, the teacher had explained that an interest in science might enable me to live my life at university, blowing enormous quantities of cash turning rats into cyborgs, then it’s quite probable I’d have been more diligent in naming the parts of that flower. As it is I didn’t, and now I’m left looking on in envy at a scientific world allowed to let its imagination run wild, with tools like particle accelerators, radio telescopes, quantum computers, fusion reactors, and my personal favorite, the vertical cavity surface emitting laser. Instead, I have to make to do with a board-marker that I hope has enough ink to last until the end of my lesson, on a good day I might have a choice of two colors.
One piece of research that recently grabbed my attention has the title: Intelligence-Augmented Rat Cyborgs in Maze Solving. A fantastically titled piece of research by Yipeng Yu, Gang Pan, Yongyue Gong, Kedi Xu, Nenggan Zheng, Weidong Hua, Xiaoxiang Zheng, Zhaohui Wu, of the Computer Science faculty at Zhejiang University.
As a teacher, the irony of this isn’t wasted on me. It’s not uncommon for education to be accused, often with justification, of “dumbing down” its content. Meanwhile some of mankind’s most academically and intellectually gifted people are working on augmenting rodent intelligence. Having spent over a decade as a teacher trying to augment my students’ intelligence, I can relate to Yu et al as they try their hardest encouraging rats through a maze. From the years I have spent trying to teach students English, I could put very little faith in any of them successfully navigating their way out of a maze. In fact, most of them seem to struggle to navigate their way to my classroom each day.
These couple of sentences that appear in the abstract of their research are enough to tell me that Yu and his friends didn’t take the warnings of Mary Shelley all that seriously:
“Cyborg intelligence is an emerging kind of intelligence paradigm. It aims to deeply integrate machine intelligence with biological intelligence by connecting machines and living beings via neural interfaces…”
Inevitably, Yu’s research with cerebrally enhanced rodents has lead to more destructive and more commercial applications being developed. Brain Machine Interfaces, BMI, are what will link humans to our computers, creating a universal human conscience. Sort of like the Borg from Star Trek.
Joking aside augmented intelligence poses some obvious moral questions that scientists will undoubtedly ignore because they will be too focused on the immediate financial rewards that are at stake. Augmenting human intelligence with computer hardware, sometimes referred to as transhumanism, is no longer fanciful, distant science fiction, but near future science.
If It can’t Be Weaponized It Isn’t Technology
At the cutting edge of technological mayhem and death is the, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. To their credit they’ve not been just about developing new and innovative methods of mass slaughter, no, they were the driving force behind the modern internet, so they’re equally concerned about surveillance.
Not wanting to miss out, DARPA are leading the way with developments to augment a soldiers intelligence. Sadly, that doesn’t mean that soldiers of the future will sit down with the enemy, listen to some Chopin, and settle their grievances over a game of Bridge. The intelligence of a soldier is measured more simply in their ability to wield death. To enable American soldiers of the future the best opportunity for doing this, DARPA are taking Yu’s research to what they consider its next logical step.
In an article from the New Scientist in 2012, a journalist reports of visiting a research center where she wears electrodes which she describes as:
that feeling of effortless concentration that characterises outstanding performance in all kinds of skills.
This was six years ago. Soon those that are wealthy enough will be using something similar for studying. The gap between the haves and have nots will become the augmented intelligent, and the ‘normals’. A brave New World scenario of alphas and gammas.
Elon Musk Neuralink and the Wizard’s Hat
When considering people who are shaping the our future today, it’s impossible to overlook a man so futuristic he was named after Captain Kirk’s aftershave, Elon Musk.
If we allow ourselves to ignore his recent proclivity to make accusations of sexual crimes based on no evidence, Musk still appears to be a genius, if not then Musk might be transforming into a disturbing caricature of Willy Wonka, not the Johnny Depp version, but full on Gene Wilder.
Ignoring his apparent instability, Musk, unlike DARPA, doesn’t see the practical application of all technologies as a means of exterminating the greatest number of human beings in the least amount of time.
Musk actually views augmented intelligence as a natural step of evolution, and through one of his companies, Neuralink, is designing the Wizard Hat.
Each layer of the brain has been added over millions of years of evolution, starting with the reptilian core, and finishing with the neomammalian layer. Musk suggests that adding a layer of electrodes is our next evolution.
Elon Musk doesn’t just believe that this is natural, he goes much, much further. He believes that it might be necessary for the survival of the human species.
Musk’s reasoning is that as computers get faster and more capable they threaten to render humans useless, I’m often of the belief that most of us already are. He suggests that mankind will have to augment their abilities in order to be of value to future societies. Musk argues that we’re already cyborgs by virtue of the fat that our abilities are augmented by our smart phones which we already carry everywhere. The next logical step is direct interface with our brains.
If only I’d had a Wizard Hat in science, I might have labelled my flower and today be playing with lasers in my vertical cavity.