Pager is a macaque. He will go down in history as one of the first sentient beings to play a computer game just by thinking. He was trained to play ‘pong’ using a joystick, which is fascinating in itself. Then when the joystick was unplugged, he played by THOUGHT ALONE.
I wrote about this in my book ‘AI for Learning’.
So what are the possibilities for learning?
1. Invisible interface
First there is the promise of the brain interacting with the world without speech or movement. Our fingers are slow input devices, even speech is slow. Imagine being able to conjure up answers, have a dialogue, practice a language and engage with learning experiences without the messiness of an interface. The invisible interface eliminates all of that packing away at screens and keyboards.
When reading and writing from and to the brain, you don’t want to damage anything and you need precise control over a range of electric fields in both time and space, also delivering a wide range of currents to different parts of the brain. The device uses Bluetooth to and from your smartphone. Indeed, it is the mass production of smartphone chips and sensors that have made this breakthrough possible. The smartphone may in the end be merely a bridge to its own obsolescence.
Our current interfaces, keyboards, touchscreen, gestures and voice, could also be bypassed, giving much faster thought ‘to and from machine’ by tapping into the phonological loop. This is an altogether different form of interface, more akin to VR. Consciousness is a reconstructed representation of reality anyway and these new interfaces would be much more experiential as forms of consciousness, not just language. Note that Pager is not executing imagined speech but actions.
2. Reducing cognitive load
This invisible interface feature alone will save immense amounts of cognitive effort, thereby reducing cognitive load. This matters, as cognitive load, is a rate limiting step in learning. To give but one example, when we watch video to learn, we have a 20 second period of attention and can hold only 2-4 things in our head at any one time. This means that this learning experience is largely one of forgetting. We get the illusion of learning, we feel as though we’re learning but, like a shooting star, our memories burn up behind us. Unfortunately, this transience effect, severely limits what we learn from video. In fact, this problem of overload is common to most learning.
Eliminating the need to learn how to use an interface, recognise icons and manipulate things to increase the limited screen real-estate, means that much of our cognitive effort, the key to learning, is wasted. We’re so busy, scanning, clicking, scrolling and manipulating the interface, that it harms learning. UX design will disappear into understanding the psychology of learning not the ergonomics of screens.
3. Accelerated learning
Learning is a relatively permanent change to long-term memory. If we can use AI, as they do I this experiment, to read data from our minds, then good pedagogy can be applied. Immediate feedback to propel the learner forward. Feedback should be renamed feedforward, as its purpose is to accelerate learning. Fast, personalised feedback, can be provided on the basis of what we are thinking. All sorts of other AI and data-driven techniques, which I examine in my book ‘AI for Learning’, come into play – personalised, adaptive, deep search, chatbots, nudge learning, learning on the flow of work. This advance unlocks many other uses of AI for learning.
It doesn’t end there. This experiment shows something that we knew already, that mental rehearsal, leads to learning. Note that the Neuralink system captures what Pager learns, calibrates it using AI, then uses that to do what pager wants without any physical interface. They read Pager’s mind, literally intentions, in realtime to predict what Pager wants to do.
It’s the decoding of Pager’s brain signals that are being used here. This is not just about the fibre implants. It is the AI decoded data that does the smart work. You simply imagine something then the computer knows what you are thinking. These intentions can spark of actions anywhere on a network. For example, implants on the legs of paraplegics, allowing them to walk. More commonly, anyone could use a smartphone mentally, faster than anyone using it physically.
4. Insights on learning
At the very least this will give us insights into the way the brain works. We can ‘read’ the brain more precisely but also experiment to prove/disprove hypotheses on memory and learning. This will take a lot more than just reading ‘spikes’ (electrical impulses from one neuron to many) but it is a huge leap in terms of an affordable window into the brain. If we unlock memory formation, we have the key to efficient learning.
5. Read memories
Memories are of many types and complex, distributed phenomena in the brain. Musk talked eloquently about being able to read memories, that means they can be stored for later retrieval. Imagine having cherished memories stored to be later experienced, like your wedding photos, only as felt conscious events, like episodic memories. There are conceptual problems with this, as memory is a reconstructive event, but at least these reconstructions could be read for later retrieval. At the wilder end of speculation Musk imagined that you could ‘read’ your entire brain, with all of its memories, store this and implant in another device.
6. Write memories
Reading memories is one thing. Imagine being able to ‘write’ memories to the brain. That is, essentially learning, especially if they bypass the limitations of working memory. If we can do this, we can accelerate learning. This would be a massive leap for our species. Learning is a slow and laborious process. It takes 20 years or more before we become functioning members of society, even then we forget much of what we were taught and learned. Our brains are seriously hindered by the limited bandwidth and processing power of our working memory. We are easily distracted, get demotivated, can’t upload, download and sleep for one third of our lives. Overcoming those blocks, by direct writing to the brain, would allow much faster learning. Could we eliminate great tranches of boring schooling? Such reading and writing of memories would, of course, be encrypted for privacy. You wouldn’t want your brain hacked!
This is not just about memories. It is our faculty of the imagination that drives us as a species forward, whether in mathematics, AI and science but also in art and creativity. Think of the possibilities in music and other art forms, the opportunities around the creative process, where we can have imagination prostheses.
In my book I talk about the philosophical discussion around extended consciousness and cognition. Some think the internet and personal devices like smartphones have already extended cognition. The Neuralink team are keenly aware that they may have opened up a window on the mind that may ultimately solve the hard problem of consciousness, something that has puzzled us for thousands of years. If we can really identify correlates between what we think in consciousness and what is happening in the brain and can even simulate and create consciousness, we are well on the way to solving that problem.
9. End to suffering
But the real long-term win here, is the opportunity to limit suffering, pain, physical disabilities, autism, learning difficulties and many forms of mental illness. It may also be able to read electrical and chemical signals for other diseases, leading to their prevention. This is only the beginning, like the first transistor or telephone call. It is a scalable solution and as versions roll out with more channels, better interpretation using AI, in more areas of the brain, there are endless possibilities. This event was, for me, more important than man landing on the moon as it has its focus, not on grand gestures and political showmanship, but on reducing human suffering. That is a far more noble goal. It is about time we stopped obsessing with the ethics of AI, with endless dystopian navel gazing, to recognise that it has revolutionary possibilities in the reduction of suffering.
10. Neural interfaces are here
Musk showed three little piggies in pens, one without an implant, one that had an implant, now removed without any effects and one with an implant (they showed the signal live). Using a robot as surgeon the Neuralink tech can be inserted in an hour, without a general anaesthetic and you can be out of hospital the same day. The coin size device is inserted in the skull, beneath the skull. Its fibres are only 5 microns in diameter (a human hair is 100 microns) and it has ten times the channels of the Utah array, with a megabit bandwidth rate, to and from your smartphone. All channels are read and write.
From a pig in 2000 to playing a computer game in realtime in 2001. AI, robotics, physics, material science, medicine and biology collided in a Big Bang event, where we saw an affordable device that can be inserted into your brain to solve important spinal and brain problems. By problems they meant memory loss, hearing loss, blindness, paralysis, extreme pain, seizures, strokes and brain damage. They also included mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, insomnia and addiction. Ultimately, I have no doubt that this will lead to huge decrease in human suffering. God doesn’t seem to have solved the problem of human suffering, we as a species, through science are on the brink of doing it by and for ourselves.
Other companies are working on other neural interfaces. One promising line is a brain interface from a stent in a brain blood vessel, a stentrode. This is easily inserted, gets incorporated into tissue.
Tech for good...