Do We Need Brain Implants to Keep Up with Robots?

Pundits have been fretting lately about robots leaving humans behind, taking our jobs and possibly a lot more, as in The Matrix and Terminator films. The eminent neuroscientist Christof Koch has proposed a radical solution. To keep up with machines, we should boost our cognitive powers with brain implants.

Koch, who directs the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, which has an annual budget of more than $100 million, floats this idea in a recent Wall Street Journal essay, “To Keep Up With AI, We’ll Need High-Tech Brains.” The subhead: “Technologies that enhance the human brain will be essential to avoid a dystopian future fueled by the rise of artificial intelligence.”

Koch doesn’t think non-invasive methods, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, will be sufficient. “Ultimately, to boost our brain power, we need to directly listen to and control individual neurons: the atom of perception, action, memory and consciousness. And for that, we need to directly access brain tissue, requiring (for now) at least some surgery to penetrate the skull.”

Koch notes that brain implants are already helping paralyzed people control computers and robots, and they are being investigated as treatments for depression and other mental disorders. Future implants could help us download huge amounts of information instantly, he claims, so we can learn “novel skills and facts without even trying.” Like Neo “learning” how to fly a helicopter in The Matrix!

“Another exciting prospect,” Koch says, is “melding two or more brains into a single conscious mind by direct neuron-to-neuron links.” Like The Borg in Star Trek! Koch urges a “crash program to design safe, inexpensive, reliable and long-lasting devices and procedures for manipulating brain processes inside their protective shell,” i.e., the skull.

Koch neglects obvious questions raised by his sci-fi vision. It’s scary enough that bad guys can hack into our smart phones and laptops. What if they could hack into our brains? Implants would give Big Brother the ultimate form of mind-reading and mind-control.

Also, we are nowhere close to being able to enhance the brain in the manner that Koch envisions. Reliably integrating neural tissue and digital technologies would require cracking the neural code, the brain’s software, which transforms processes in the brain into perceptions, memories, emotions, decisions. Neuroscientists have, if anything, too many candidates for a neural code. There are population codes, rate codes, temporal codes, chaotic codes and others.

Koch has thrown his weight behind integrated information theory, which says that consciousness arises not only in brains but also in much simpler information-processing systems–like a single proton, which contains three information-exchanging quarks. That means consciousness pervades all matter, as decreed by the mystical doctrine panpsychism.

Koch’s backing of integrated information theory seems like a sign of desperation. So does his call for research aimed at turning us into super-intelligent cyborgs. Koch is perhaps seeking a grand justification for the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a multi-billion-dollar federal program that supports research at the Allen Institute and elsewhere.

Koch is genuinely worried about humanity’s future. That was clear when I interviewed him last year in Seattle for a book I’m writing on the mind-body problem. He expressed concern over inequality, political instability, nuclear terrorism and war. He feared that science, far from solving our problems, might exacerbate them.

Advances in artificial intelligence, for example, could displace human transportation workers. “Vast numbers of trucks and cabs will be automated because it’s safer, cheaper and quicker,” Koch told me. “Well, what are we going to do with these 3.5 million [drivers]? Are we going to turn them into Java programmers? I doubt it. If we don’t look after them, they may get angry, and we will have more social discord.”

The future scares me too. We’re got serious problems on our hands, and we have a lot of work to do to solve them. Brain implants are not the answer.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one originally published on his ScientificAmerican.com blog, “Cross-check.”