Want to see in the dark? One day they’ll have an app for that.

Humans and data as one

The combination of man and machine has been so entrenched in our popular culture that for many, the idea that you could attach a sensor to a mouse brain which enables it to see infrared spectrum may not shocking. Nor would wiring someone’s tongue to determine magnetic north elicit much surprise.

One might wonder why someone wants to find magnetic north using their tongue, but the fact that Gershon Dublon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is making this happen using a device called Tongueduino isn’t a big deal. As for the why, apparently the human tongue is both highly sensitive and highly trainable. From an article in the New Scientist (hat tip Steven Crowley):

Dublon says the brain quickly adapts to new stimuli on the tongue and integrates them into our senses. For example, if Tongueduino is attached to a sensor that detects Earth’s magnetic field, users can learn to use their tongue as a compass. “You might not have to train much,” he says. “You could just put this on and start to perceive.”

These sorts of experiments might represent the cutting edge of Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity where humanity and machines meld– but the jury is out on whether the machines will ever develop intelligence as Kurzweil also predicts. Unlike the creation of an artificial brain or true artificial intelligence where machines can somehow gain consciousness, these researchers are talking computers and sensors and wiring them into our existing wetware to give humans new abilities. So we may not get Skynet, but the Terminator is within reach.

If Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University and his team can wire a mouse brain today with infrared vision (you could see in the dark!), how long until we can wire up a human with similar abilities? Of course, we’d have to not only develop the communication protocol for the sensor to brain interface (ie, teach the brain how to interpret the digital signals) but also develop ways to install hardware into the human body.

Right now, getting electronics into people is fraught with risks, not only of infection and rejection, but also for the electronics which can degrade, wander the body or short out. Plus, we might have to revamp our airport security procedures when the masses contain microchips.

Still, the ideas put forth by these researchers are enticing — not because they predict a future that’s in the realm of science fiction — but because both seem eminently plausible. After all, some people are already¬†controlling their prosthetic arms or legs with their minds, so how far is the leap from replacing a missing limb to adding some extra senses? And if we can add these capabilities without having to wear a highly-visible pair of Google Glasses then, how nice would that be?


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