Saturday, April 29, 2017

Wisdom of the Week

The neocortex had turned humans into magicians. Not only had he made the human head a wondrous internal ocean of complex thoughts, his latest breakthrough had found a way to translate those thoughts into a symbolic set of sounds and send them vibrating through the air into the heads of other humans, who could then decode the sounds and absorb the embedded idea into their own internal thought oceans. The human neocortex had been thinking about things for a long time—and he finally had someone to talk about it all with.

A neocortex party ensued. Neocortexes—fine—neocortices shared everything with each other—stories from their past, funny jokes they had thought of, opinions they had formed, plans for the future.

But most useful was sharing what they had learned. If one human learned through trial and error that a certain type of berry led to 48 hours of your life being run by diarrhea, they could use language to share the hard-earned lesson with the rest of their tribe, like photocopying the lesson and handing it to everyone else. Tribe members would then use language to pass along that lesson to their children, and their children would pass it to their own children. Rather than the same mistake being made again and again by many different people, one person’s “stay away from that berry” wisdom could travel through space and time to protect everyone else from having their bad experience.

The same thing would happen when one human figured out a new clever trick. One unusually-intelligent hunter particularly attuned to both star constellations and the annual migration patterns of wildebeest1 herds could share a system he devised that used the night sky to determine exactly how many days remained until the herd would return. Even though very few hunters would have been able to come up with that system on their own, through word-of-mouth, all future hunters in the tribe would now benefit from the ingenuity of one ancestor, with that one hunter’s crowning discovery serving as every future hunter’s starting point of knowledge.


Another professor, Jeff Lichtman, is even harsher. He starts off his courses by asking his students the question, “If everything you need to know about the brain is a mile, how far have we walked in this mile?” He says students give answers like three-quarters of a mile, half a mile, a quarter of a mile, etc.—but that he believes the real answer is “about three inches.”

A third professor, neuroscientist Moran Cerf, shared with me an old neuroscience saying that points out why trying to master the brain is a bit of a catch-22: “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”


BMIs won’t sweep the world as long as you need to go in for skull-opening surgery to get involved.

This is a major topic at Neuralink. I think the word “non-invasive” or “non-invasively” came out of someone’s mouth like 42 times in my discussions with the team.

On top of being both a major barrier to entry and a major safety issue, invasive brain surgery is expensive and in limited supply. Elon talked about an eventual BMI-implantation process that could be automated: “The machine to accomplish this would need to be something like Lasik, an automated process—because otherwise you just get constrained by the limited number of neural surgeons, and the costs are very high. You’d need a Lasik-like machine ultimately to be able to do this at scale.”

Making BMIs high-bandwidth alone would be a huge deal, as would developing a way to non-invasively implant devices. But doing both would start a revolution.


Often, the battle in our heads between our prefrontal cortex and limbic system comes down to the fact that both parties are trying to do what’s best for us—it’s just that our limbic system is wrong about what it thinks is best for us because it thinks we live in a tribe 50,000 years ago.

Your limbic system isn’t making you eat your ninth Starburst candy in a row because it’s a dick—it’s making you eat it because it thinks that A) any fruit that sweet and densely chewy must be super rich in calories and B) you might not find food again for the next four days so it’s a good idea to load up on a high-calorie food whenever the opportunity arises.

Meanwhile, your prefrontal cortex is just watching in horror like “WHY ARE WE DOING THIS.”

But Moran believes that a good brain interface could fix this problem.

Consider eating a chocolate cake. While eating, we feed data to our cognitive apparatus. These data provide the enjoyment of the cake. The enjoyment isn’t in the cake, per se, but in our neural experience of it. Decoupling our sensory desire (the experience of cake) from the underlying survival purpose (nutrition) will soon be within our reach.

This concept of “sensory decoupling” would make so much sense if we could pull it off. You could get the enjoyment of eating like shit without actually putting shit in your body. Instead, Moran says, what would go in your body would be “nutrition inputs customized for each person based on genomes, microbiomes or other factors. Physical diets released from the tyranny of desire.”

The same principle could apply to things like sex, drugs, alcohol, and other pleasures that get people into trouble, healthwise or otherwise.

Ramez Naam talks about how a brain interface could also help us win the discipline battle when it comes to time.

We know that stimulating the right centers in the brain can induce sleep or alertness, hunger or satiation, ease or stimulation, as quick as the flip of a switch. Or, if you’re running code, on a schedule. (Siri: Put me to sleep until 7:30, high priority interruptions only. And let’s get hungry for lunch around noon. Turn down the sugar cravings, though.)Want to hear what a dog hears? That’s easy. The pitch range we can hear is limited by the dimensions of our cochlea—but pitches out of the ear’s range can be sent straight into our auditory nerve.

Or maybe you want a new sense. You love bird watching and want to be able to sense when there’s a bird nearby. So you buy an infrared camera that can detect bird locations by their heat signals and you link it to your brain interface, which stimulates neurons in a certain way to alert you to the presence of a bird and tell you its location. I can’t describe what you’d experience when it alerts you, because I’ll just say words like “feel” or “see,” because I can only imagine the five senses we have. But in the future, there will be more words for new, useful types of senses.

You could also dim or shut off parts of a sense, like pain perhaps. Pain is the body’s way of telling us we need to address something, but in the future, we’ll elect to get that information in much less unpleasant formats.

- Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future by Tim Urban

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