The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brain implants: Because you’ve always wanted to think more like Einstein

As we learn more about how the human brain works, it may be possible to develop brain implants for the enhancement of learning, memory and concentration. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

In last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, two leading brain researchers conjectured that as a result of rapid breakthroughs in fields such as molecular biology and neuroscience, one day “brain implants” will be just about as common as getting a bit of plastic surgery is today. In short, today’s tummy tucks are tomorrow’s brain tucks. Similar to what you’d expect from watching science fiction films such as “The Matrix,” these brain implants would enable you to learn foreign languages effortlessly, upgrade your memory capabilities, and, yes, help you to know Kung Fu.

Vinton Cerf argues that today’s Internet (think Google) is already a form of cognitive implant, helping us to learn the answer to just about anything within seconds. If computing power continues to increase at the same rate as it has for the past 50 years, it is likely that a single computer will have the computing capacity of a human brain by 2023. By 2045, a single computer could have the processing capability of all human brains put together. Just think what you’d be able to use Google to do then. You wouldn’t even need to type in a search query, your brain would already know the answer. 

Of course, the ability to create these brain implants raises a number of philosophical, ethical and moral questions. If you’re a young student having a tough time in a boring class, why not just buy a brain module that simulates the often repetitive nature of learning? If you’re a parent of a child looking to get into a top university, why not buy a brain implant as a way to gain an advantage over children from less privileged backgrounds, especially when it’s SAT time? Instead of the digital divide, we may be talking about the cognitive divide at some point in the next two decades. Some parents would be able to afford a 99 percent percentile brain for their children, while others wouldn’t.

While the first cognitive implants won’t be around for some time, we’ve already had a glimpse of what’s possible. DARPA is working on enhancements for soldiers that give them powers of hyper-concentration, the ability to have super-memories and the capability to recover from PTSD. Researchers at UC Berkeley are working on a wireless brain interface called “neural dust.” And researchers at Wake Forest are working on ways to implant artificial memories in rats and monkeys. Meanwhile, the work on neuroprosthetics continues to advance at a rapid pace, giving hope that people will be able to routinely control artificial limbs with their brains one day soon.

The dizzying pace of technological change is not only getting faster, it’s also leading to the creation of new disciplines. Rapid advances in computing power now means overlaps are occurring  in fields such as molecular biology and optical engineering (optogenetics), or neuroscience and biomedical engineering (neuroprosthetics). At some point, the technologies used to create better machines will be used to create better humans. And vice versa. 

And all of that change is set to speed up in the future, as the result of massive new scientific initiatives like the $100 million BRAIN initiative financed by the Obama administration in 2013. Once we know how each element of the brain works and can map the brain’s neurons in 3D, it’s really just a matter of time before we can create “super-children” capable of great feats of learning or “super-athletes” who are always in the zone as the result of their ability for hyper-concentration. Many now compare mapping the human brain to mapping the human genome.

Most likely, the technological adoption curve will go from using cognitive implants to reverse the effects of diseases such as Alzheimer’s or autism, then to “getting a little work done” to overcome the effects of aging, and finally, to using cognitive implants as an enhancement for super-children and super-athletes. Let’s just hope society’s philosophers and ethicists are able to keep up with the rapid gain in cognitive potential made possible by this new knowledge of how the human brain works — and that the machines allow us to catch up with them.