The advent of personal computers and the internet has been the biggest technological advance humanity has experienced in recent history. The effects of the internet can be felt throughout society, increasing the technological power wielded by humans but also leaving new problems in its wake. To better prepare, the world should look to the future and consider what the next groundbreaking technological achievement might be. It's likely this achievement will be a new control and understanding of the human brain.
Neuroscience has come to dominate much of biological and computational research, fueled by new experimental and analytical techniques that have broadened understanding of the nervous system. Today’s researchers have an unprecedented ability to selectively turn on and off parts of the brain. This technique, known as optogenetics, has given neuroscientists an astounding degree of control over animal behavior. With the flip of a switch, scientists can spontaneously make mice walk in certain directions or initiate aggressive behaviors. Such technologies applied to humans could suppress depressive thoughts or seizures, curing the most difficult-to-treat psychiatric disorders. They could also be used to irresponsibly alter brain states, creating drug-like or painful effects on an individual's conscious experience.
It’s already possible to gain remarkable insights into what an individual experiences based on neuroimaging data. Scientists at Berkeley University recently were able to computationally reconstruct what a subject in an fMRI machine saw. Using only the pattern of electrical activity in the cortex, researchers created a crude video of what the subject saw in their visual field. Imagine the implications posed by a more refined version of this technology; machines that could decipher brain activity could recreate a person’s thoughts or memories, extracting someone's inner monologue. Neuroimaging data used to train AI systems could employ the way humans process information to its own ends.
Eventually, it's possible that conventional computer technology will begin to more directly merge with human biology. While still outside the scope of current techniques, accurate brain machine-interfaces could revolutionize the way humans interact with computers. It’s difficult to predict what such technology may do, but its effect will most likely be to allow humans and computers to strengthen each other’s weaknesses. Humans currently excel at creative thinking and learning, while computers are better at rapid information recall and mathematical analysis. Melding computer science and neuroscience could give rise to the first human-like artificial intelligence. It could also vastly enhance human intellectual capabilities via neural implants. As a pacemaker controls the electrical activity of the heart, neural implants would allow for direct functional control of the brain, perhaps enhancing memory formation or recall.
Ultimately, scientific advances aren’t inherently good or bad. Science only gives humanity more power. Neuroscience could lead to cures for Alzheimer's and depression, powerful AI systems and the progression into a new era of civilization – but the costs could be devastating. While the internet has given corporations and the surveillance state newfound ways of manipulating individuals, neuroscience could enhance the control those in power have over people. Technology is only as moral as those who control it, thus a proper framework for the use and development of neurotechnologies must be established. The ethics of brain science must be discussed openly and democratically, leading to the thoughtful enactment of regulations and restrictions. It's paramount that the power neuroscience gives humanity is shared by all and for the benefit of all.
William Meara is a senior biotechnology major. Contact William at email@example.com.