Computers on the brain

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD


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Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD

Of all of the various implantable medical miracles promised and predicted over the years, the one about having a computer in your head is one of the most controversial and challenging of all. The very thought of having a foreign object in your head turns a lot of people off, and the very act of having one or more holes cut in your head to put things inside the skull is a challenging installation at best.

Yet the advantages are also compelling. Who wouldn’t want photographic memory or perfect math skills without having to study for years? Does inter-cranial voicemail count as telepathy? What about helping those with nervous-system issues like Parkinson’s? From Crichton’s “Terminal Man”, to Niven & Pournelle’s “Oath of Fealty”, to Star Trek, books and movies have shown us a future with intelligent assistants in our heads and bodies.

My sci-fi novel Cyberchild, released in 2005, predicted the use of injected microbots to build a computer in the brain from the inside, bypassing the need for trepanation, but it wouldn’t take a far leap of imagination from that point to forsee pills or patches containing permanent or temporary nanotech that would build, modify, or update any hardware in your body one day.

It has only become apparent in the last couple of decades that the web would become a major force in any implanted electronics providing high levels of functionality, and now any computer in the brain would also have to have some type of wireless functionality, either though NFC to an external repeater, or higher-power systems using antennas under the skin.

The ability to tap into the Cloud from your brain would be a major force multiplier. From sending and receiving “telepathic” emails, texts, and videos to enhanced memory and calculation capability, a computer in the brain could be a powerful tool, enabling a single person lying on the beach the ability to operate as well and effectively as a team of people sitting in an office.

There are downsides to having a machine in your head as well, from the one in Crichton’s work to “Minority Report” fears of control and surveillance. Even “normal” computer problems could become unmanageable nightmares when translated to the brain. (The thought of having adware stuck in my head and interrupting me while I brush my teeth with toothpaste suggestions would probably drive me insane.)

As suggested in the Viewpoint at the front of this issue, we should have secure and standard communication protocols for all of this kind of extremely personal and life-critical functionality in embedded human systems. An environment where people couldn’t be sure their very thoughts were safe would not be one that attracted many adopters. Making any such system secure and safe would give people the assurance that users can take advantage of the system without the system taking advantage of the users.