Digitizing the Mind

Merging biological and artificial intelligence


The human brain is a frustrating paradox for scientists and researchers. Solving the mysteries of the brain could help quantify abstract concepts such as language, memory, and imagination. Its neural activity could be modified to make people learn faster and think quicker. Better understanding the brain could also help develop treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and unlock the secrets of consciousness. But the organ’s complexity is baffling. Humans have barely begun to discover the potential that exists within the brain, and it may take decades before significant, applicable breakthroughs are made.

A forward-thinking population of the tech community is working toward those breakthroughs using neuroprosthetic devices and brain-sensor interfaces, essentially digitizing the electric signals that bounce among neurons as the brain operates.

A recent Wired article tells the story of entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, who is using neural wiring to capture the brain activity that triggers memories. Johnson owns an algorithm capable of recording and translating neural signals into code that can be enhanced or altered and sent back to the brain—like Photoshop for a person’s memory.

Though his focus on memory is unique, Johnson isn’t alone in his pursuit. Mark Zuckerberg and a team from Facebook are developing a non-invasive, speech-to-text interface using optical imaging to type words as the user thinks them. The federal government has taken an interest in this trend as well, and is on the front lines of research and development. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Biological Technologies Office has created a direct neural interface for movement and sensation that is capable of restoring function for people who’ve lost the ability to feel or move a limb, for example.

The artificial intelligence (AI) community is now leveraging this type of research with the goal of harnessing the human brain’s propensity for logical and critical thinking, emotion, and creativity. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has invested heavily in Neuralink, a brain implant company hoping to improve brain function by using “neural lace” to merge human consciousness with software and AI. Google’s DeepMind initiative has created an artificial neural network that uses rational reasoning to make decisions and solve puzzles.

While the common trope pits man against machine, the future landscape of intelligence seems better poised for cooperation than competition.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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