People have been requesting that I do more futurist posts, so here's a bit of holiday optimism.
A lot of recent futurist discussion in the media and blogosphere has revolved around either the technological stagnation thesis, or the question of whether robots will replace humans. Elsewhere, people are toying with the implications of more far-out technologies like brain emulation and desire modification, or following the ongoing mini-booms in natural gas fracking and 3-D printing.
But it occurs to me that people may be overlooking something big: another technological revolution that is right under our noses, about to change our world in a big way. I'm talking about the rise of biomechanical engineering...or, to use a more catchy term, cyborg technology. The cyborg revolution is not a far-future sci-fi conjecture; it is upon us even as I write these words.
For a taste of how cyborg technology may soon change our world, check out this BBC article. The key technology is the integration of human brains with computers. Here are some extrapolations of technologies that currently exist:
1. Direct mental control of machines (also called Mind-Machine Interface, or MMI). Non-invasive ways of controlling machines with one's mind have already been developed and will soon be commercialized. The biggest benefit of this, of course, will be for physically impaired people, but it will also probably allow us to write a lot faster; just think words, and they appear on the page. Writing speed is probably a significant constraint on productivity, so MMI may have the potential to raise service-industry productivity, which has been lagging in recent decades. Of course, MMI may also be a much easier and more fun way to play video games, control your mobile devices, etc., than punching buttons.
Another aspect of this is mind-internet interface. Obviously, this is scary, since you don't want your brain getting hacked by jerky teenagers halfway around the globe. So I'm not sure if this will ever be done, especially because sight is already a very fast way to assimilate information from the net.
2. Augmented intelligence. Artificial intelligence is one of the most-talked-about technologies, but if you think about it, it's probably easier and more natural to begin with the intelligence we already have, and simply augment it with computers. The BBC article I cited discusses experiments in which artificial devices have already served as functioning brain structures in rats, in particular as artificial memory centers; expect this technology to improve rapidly.
If we can store human memories in artificial brain structures, the implications are enormous. First of all, it would vastly expand the knowledge base and expertise of a human knowledge worker; if we could store vastly expanded amounts of knowledge, we would no longer be constrained to specialize in one incredibly narrow field. This might unlock huge innovative potential, as individual humans could do the kind of creative work that now require teams of humans.
If these artificial brain structures can be exchanged between people (a nontrivial task, obviously!), then we get human memory transfer, and the possibilities are even more enormous. Instant education, as expertise is copied and transferred from human to human. Functional immortality, as full sets of memories are transferred to cloned brains (Note: This is an idea I got from Miles Kimball; he explains it in this post). Etc.
Artificial brain structures might also allow boosted cognitive ability. Imagine humans with the processing power of computers at their beck and call. This, of course, is a more speculative technology...but maybe not so speculative, to wit:
3. Augmented learning. This sounds very pie-in-the-sky, until you read the BBC article and find that it is already real and may even be available over the counter:
Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is a way of running electrical current through the brain with electrodes attached to the outside of the skull. The US Defence Advanced Research Agency (Darpa) currently uses tDCS to improve the learning speed of snipers, claiming it cuts the learning curve by a factor of 2.5. There are issues, though. "They learn more quickly but they don't have a good intuitive or introspective sense about why,” says Vincent Clark, neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico.
Such devices were initially expensive, but now GoFlow sells a DIY kit for $99, which consists of two electrodes, cables and a 9-volt battery. So, in theory, everybody can try and tune his or her own brain at home. But if it is not applied correctly, anything could happen – from enhancing intelligence (intended), rewiring our brains (who knows?) through to electrocuting ourselves (not intended). Neuroscientist Roi Cohen Kadosh from Oxford University says he wouldn’t buy the DIY kit, because he thinks it is premature to distribute it to non-experts. “People might feel like they should stimulate their brain as much as they want, but just as buying a medicine on the counter, you need to know when to use it, how often, in what conditions and in what cases you should not take it.”There is no word to describe this except for "amazing". I fully expect other bloggers to buy the kit, try it out, and tell me how it goes...
Of course, another possible application of this exact same type of technology is:
4. Mood modification. We already know how to stimulate certain emotions with direct brain stimulation; noninvasive methods, of the type currently being developed for artificial learning, would revolutionize the applications of this technology. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy currently relies on human attention and vigilance to replace negative thoughts with positive ones (thus alleviating depression and anxiety); if this process could be automated, it could help cure some of the great psychological scourges of modern society.
But why stop there? People with phobias could get rid of the phobias by counteracting fear responses at high speed; as soon as you see the thing you fear (a dog, or an enclosed space), a computer will see your fear response spiking and stimulate feelings of safety and security instead. Poof, phobia gone! Not to mention social anxiety; imagine how easy it would be to talk to cute girls at parties if your mobile device could zap you with artificial self-confidence every time you started to get scared.
Of course, at this point, mood modification becomes a rudimentary form of my "holy grail" technology of Desire Modification. The thing to understand is that non-invasive external stimulation of emotional responses is not very far away; we're talking a few years, not a few decades.
5. Artificial sensory input. This already exists and is on the market, in the form of cochlear impants (artificial ears) and visual prostheses (artificial eyes). The technology is improving very rapidly. At the point where artificial senses become as good as (or better than!) natural ones, whole new worlds of possibility open up.
For example: artificial eyes and ears would replace all input devices. You would never need a television screen, a phone, Google Goggles, or a speaker of any kind. All you would need would be your own artificial eyes. You could play video games in perfect, pure augmented reality. Imagine the possibilities for video-conferencing, or hanging out with friends half a world away!
And why stop there? If you wanted, you could perceive the buildings around you as castles, or the inside of a spaceship. The whole world could look and sound however you wanted.
(Of course, brain chips that could feed artificial input to the sensory perception centers of the brain - the technology of The Matrix - could accomplish this task even better. But this might be farther away.)
OK, time to stop. Of course, I haven't come close to encompassing the full set of possibilities available from brain-computer interface, but I think I've shown that many cyborg technologies that currently exist have the potential to quickly and dramatically reshape human life. I leave it to you to fill out the list.
What will this mean for the economy? Well, unlike media and information technologies (which can usually be copied without cost), biomechanical technologies are good old manufactured goods; their inclusion into the economy will show up in the GDP statistics, unlike Facebook or Craigslist. And because these technologies have the potential to vastly improve the human experience, we can expect them to become near-universal consumer goods, provided our legal institutions allow it.
Also, cyborg technologies have the potential to improve human productivity quite a bit, as my examples above have hopefully shown. Humans who can store vast amounts of knowledge and expertise, who can directly interface with machines, and who can make themselves more well-adjusted and motivated at the touch of a (mental) button will be valuable employees indeed, and will prove useful complements to the much-discussed army of robots.
All this means that cyborg technologies, if they become widespread, will do much to quiet the fears of the stagnationists. But this, of course, requires institutions that allow these technologies to become universal. Currently, I feel that institutions like the FDA and the health care system are biased toward treating the "sick", and place way too little value on technologies to improve the average human experience above its baseline (witness how we push antidepressants on everyone, but ban even weak recreational pleasure drugs like marijuana). I fear that our society will collectively decide that anything that improves on "natural" humanity is unsafe for public consumption. This would sacrifice huge amounts of growth potential on the altar of what is essentially a pointless, semantic distinction (Isn't it "natural" for old men to become impotent? But we still allow Viagra...).
In any case, the cyborg revolution is upon us. Pay attention, futurists. This could be very, very big.
Update: Just to clarify, I think that: A) cyborg technologies that affect the mind are going to be far, far more important than ones that affect mainly the body, and B) Noninvasive methods of brain-computer interface definitely count as "cyborg" technology; you don't have to have robot parts in your head to be a cyborg.
Update 2: In this must-read piece, io9's George Dvorsky lists 16 science fiction predictions that actually came true just in 2012. Cyborg technology dominates the list; see items 1, 3, 10, 13, and 15. The cyborg revolution is upon us!
Update 3: A TED talk on cyborgs just came out. Like I said, this is bigger than anyone realizes, and is right now in the process of exploding into the public consciousness.
Update 4: Futurist Ramez Naam has an article in Forbes summarizing a lot of the new cyborg tech and speculating about where it might take us.