New Capabilities Enabled by Full Understanding of the Brain

We understand the input systems to the brain — the sensory systems — better than the rest of the brain at this time. Therefore, we start with ways of fooling the senses by means of electronic media, which can be done now, using our present understanding of the senses.

Virtual Presence

The telephone, a familiar tool for all of us, enables auditory-only virtual presence. In effect, your ears and mouth are projected to a distant location (where someone else's ears and mouth are), and you have a conversation as if you were both in the same place. Visual and haptic (touch) telepresence are harder to do, but nevertheless it will soon be possible to electronically project oneself to other physical locations, and have the perceptions you would have if you were actually there — visually, haptically, and aurally, with near-perfect fidelity.

Tasks that could be accomplished with virtual presence include

• meeting with one or more other people; this will be an alternative to business travel but will take the time of a telephone call rather than the time of a cross-country airplane flight

• interacting with physical objects in the distant location, perhaps a hazardous environment such as a nuclear power plant interior or battlefield, where actual human presence is impossible or undesirable

• interacting with objects in microscopic environments, such as in the interior of a human body (I have worked on a prototype system for doing this, the NanoManipulator; see

Better Senses

Non-invasive, removable sensory enhancements (eyeglasses and contact lenses) are used now, and are a useful first step. But why not go the second step and surgically correct the eyeball? Even better, replace the eyeball. As with artificial hips and artificial hearts, people are happy to get a new, better component; artificial sensory organs will follow. We can look at binoculars, night-vision goggles, and Geiger counters (all currently external to the body) to get an idea of what is possible: better resolution, better sensitivity, and the ability to see phenomena (such as radioactivity) that are normally imperceptible to humans. Electronic technology can be expected to provide artificial sensory organs that are small, lightweight, and self-powered. An understanding of the sensory systems and neural channels will enable, for example, hooking up the new high-resolution electronic eyeball to the optic nerve. By the time we have a full understanding of all human sensory systems, it is likely we will have a means of performing the necessary microsurgery to link electronic signals to nerves.

Better Memory

What is the storage mechanism for human memory? What is its architecture? What is the data structure for human memory? Where are the bits? What is the capacity of the human memory system in gigabytes (or petabytes)? Once we have answers to questions such as these, we can design additional memory units that are compatible with the architecture of human memory. A detailed understanding of how human memory works, where the bits are stored, and how it is wired will enable capacity to be increased, just as you now plug additional memory cards into your PC. For installation, a means of doing microsurgery is required, as discussed above. If your brain comes with 20 petabytes factory-installed, wouldn't 200 petabytes be better?

Another way of thinking about technologically-enhanced memory is to imagine that for your entire life you have worn a pair of eyeglasses with built-in, lightweight, high-resolution video cameras which have continuously transmitted to a tape library somewhere, so that every hour of everything you have ever seen (or heard) is recorded on one of the tapes. The one-hour tapes (10,000 or so for every year of your life) are arranged chronologically on shelves. So your fuzzy, vague memory of past events is enhanced with the ability to replay the tape for any hour and date you choose. Your native memory is augmented by the ability to reexperience a recorded past. Assuming nanotechnology-based memory densities in a few decades (1 bit per 300 nm3), a lifetime (3 x 109 seconds) of video (109 bits/second) fits into 1 cubic centimeter. Thus, someday you may carry with you a lifetime of perfect, unfading memories.

Better Imagination

One purpose of imagination is to be able to predict what will happen or what might happen in certain situations in order to make decisions about what to do. But human imagination is very limited in the complexity it can handle. This inside-the-head ability to simulate the future has served us very well up to now, but we now have computer-based simulation tools that far outstrip the brain's ability to predict what can happen (at least in certain well-defined situations). Consider learning how to handle engine flameouts in a flight simulator: you can't do this with unaugmented human imagination. Consider being able to predict tomorrow's weather based on data from a continent-wide network of sensors and a weather simulation program this is far beyond the amount of data and detail that human imagination can handle. Yet it is still the same kind of use of imagination with which we are familiar: predicting what might happen in certain circumstances. Thus, our native imagination may be augmented by the ability to experience a simulated future. At present, you can dissociate yourself from the flight simulator — you can get out. In future decades, with enormous computing power available in cubic micron-sized packages, we may find personal simulation capability built-in, along with memory enhancement, and improved sensory organs.

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