Landing : Athabascau University

Three glimpses of a fascinating future

I'd normally post these three links as separate bookmarks but each, which have popped up in the last few days, share a common theme that is worth noting:

In this, a neural network made out of the brain cells of a rat is trained to fly a flight simulator.

In this, signals are transmitted directly from one brain to another, using non-invasive technologies (well - if you can call a large cap covered in sensors and cables 'non-invasive'!)

This reports on a DARPA neuromodulation/neuroaugmentation project to embed tiny electronic devices in brains to (amongst other things) cure brain diseases and conditions, augment brain function and interface with the outside world (including, presumably, other brains). This article contains an awesome paragraph:

"What makes all of this so much more interesting is the fact that, unlike all the other systems of the body, which tend to reject implants, the nervous system is incorporative—meaning it’s almost custom-designed to handle these technologies. In other words, the nervous system is like your desktop computer— as long as you have the right cables, you can hook up just about any peripheral device you want."

I'm both hugely excited and deeply nervous about these developments and others like them. This is serious brain hacking. Artificial intelligence is nothing like as interesting as augmented intelligence and these experiments show different ways this is beginning to happen. It's a glimpse into an awe-inspiring future where such things gain sophistication and ubiquity. The potential for brain cracking, manipulation, neuro-digital divides, identity breakdown, privacy intrusion, large-scale population monitoring and control, spying, mass-insanity and so on is huge and scary, as is the potential for things to go horribly wrong in so many new and extraordinary ways. But I would be one of the first to sign up for things like augmenting my feeble brain with the knowledge of billions (and maybe giving some of my knowledge back in return), getting to see the world through someone else's eyes or even just being able to communicate instantly, silently and unambiguously with loved ones wherever they might be. This is transhumanity writ large, a cyborg future where anything might happen. Smartphones, televisions, the web, social media, all the visible trappings of our information and communication technologies that we know now, might very suddenly become amusing antiques, laughably quaint, redundant and irrelevant. A world wide web of humans and machines (biological and otherwise), making global consciousness (of a kind, at least) a reality. It is hard but fascinating to imagine what the future of learning and knowledge might be in the kind of super-connected scenario that this implies. At the very least, it would disrupt our educational systems beyond anything that has ever come before! From the huge to the trivial, everything would change. What would networked humans (not metaphorically, not through symbolic intermediaries, but literally, in real time) be like? What would it be like to be part of that network? In what new ways would we know one another, how would are attitudes to one another change? Where would our identities begin and end? What would happen if we connected our pets? What would be the effects of a large solar flare that wiped out electronic devices and communication once we had grown used to it all? Everything blurs, everything connects. So very, very cool. So very, very frightening.

Jon Dron

Jon Dron

still learning, never learning enough
About me

I am a full professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment in the School of Computing & Information Systems, and a member of The Technology-Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at...


  • An elite with fresh organs harvested from the massive global underclass all brain-augmented and ready to take off as soon as Mars is ready—the disposable planet scenario fully realized?

    Mary Pringle September 8, 2014 - 8:26am

  • Smile

    It would be nice to think that brain augmentation might lead to smarter behaviour. Perhaps a better research direction would be soul augmentation...

    Jon Dron September 8, 2014 - 9:55am

  • I shudder to think how addictive that might be. I'm not speaking from a medical perspective - simply from the behavioural, extrapolating from what I am doing right now instead of what I should be doing.  :-)

    James Ronholm September 9, 2014 - 11:30am

  • PS there seems to be a small error in the rat brain link - a couple of non-printing extra characters at the end

    James Ronholm September 9, 2014 - 11:36am

  • Thanks Jim - now corrected.

    Yes, it would make the addictive nature of existing media seem very tame. Which makes me wonder - the potential for games is truly awe-inspiring, but this raises a whole bunch of deeply frightening possibilities because it's a reminder that what we get from others could be programmatically controlled, filtered, manipulated, modified, and altered.

    I'm currently reading Judith Donath's truly excellent The Social Machine, in which she goes into some depth on ways sensory data such as heart-rate, skin impedance, etc (just the thin end of this wedge) can be used to 'enhance' electronic communication. One of her many great points is that privacy is essential for social engagement (and many other things, such as diversity) but we have not evolved to be able to control physiological systems to hide and show thoughts, feelings, sensations etc - this is not so much an enhancement as a deeply intrusive and potentially threatening transformation of communication.

    Jon Dron September 9, 2014 - 12:03pm

These comments are moderated. Your comment will not be visible unless accepted by the content owner.

Only simple HTML formatting is allowed and any hyperlinks will be stripped away. If you need to include a URL then please simply type it so that users can copy and paste it if needed.