10 April 2009

The future: neuroengineering and virtual minds

Filed under: books, futurist, neuroengineering — David Wood @ 8:25 pm

Because things have been so absorbing and demanding at work, during the setup phase of the Symbian Foundation, I’ve had little time over the last few months for a couple of activities that I usually greatly enjoy.

First, I’ve had little time to write articles for this blog (my personal blog). Any time and energy that I’ve had available for blogging has tended to go, instead, to postings in my work blog. For example, over the last fortnight I’ve written work-related postings entitled A new software journey, Collaboration at the heart, The first hardware reference design, Who wants to join a movement?, and Simpler and cleaner code. In principle, this blog here is for more personal reflections, and for matters removed from my day-to-day work responsibilities.

Second, I’ve had little time to read books. Last year, I probably finished on average at least one book and/or audio-book every two weeks. This year, so far, I’ve only made it to the end of one book: Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, by David Sloan Wilson. (It’s a fine book, which is both intellectually challenging and intellectually satisfying, and which also happens to be very relevant to the ongoing debates over “the new atheism”. My review of it can be found on the LivingSocial site.)

However, earlier today, in the course of a long flight, I took the time to open a book I’ve been carrying with me on several previous trips, and I made a good start on it. From what I’ve read so far, it already seems clear to me that this is a tremendous piece of work, about a field that deserves a significant increase in attention. The author is Bruce F. Katz, adjunct professor at Drexel University, and Chief Artificial Intelligence Scientist at ColdLight. The book is Neuroengineering the future: virtual minds and the creation of immortality.

Wikipedia gives the following definition of the term “Neuroengineering”:

Neural engineering also known as Neuroengineering is a discipline that uses engineering techniques to understand, repair, replace, enhance, or treat the diseases of neural systems. Neural engineers are uniquely qualified to solve design problems at the interface of living neural tissue and non-living constructs… Prominent goals in the field include restoration and augmentation of human function via direct interactions between the nervous system and artificial devices.

That’s an ambitious set of goals, but Bruce sets out an even grander vision. To give a flavour, here’s an extract from the Preface of his book:

I am not the first, and certainly will not be the last, to stress the importance of coming developments in neural engineering. This field has all the hallmarks of a broad technological revolution, but larger in scope and with deeper tentacles than those accompanying both computers and the Internet…

To modify the brain is to modify not only how we perceive but what we are, our consciousnesses and our identities. The power to be able to do so cannot be over-stated, and the consequences can scarcely be imagined, especially with our current unmodified evolutionarily provided mental apparatuses…

Here are just a few topics that we will cover…

  1. Brain-machine interfaces to control computers, exoskeletons, robots, and other devices with thought alone;
  2. Mind-reading devices that will project the conscious contents of one’s brain onto a screen as if it was a movie;
  3. Devices to enhance intellectual ability and to increase concentration;
  4. Devices to enhance creativity and insight;
  5. Mechanisms to upload the mind to a machine, thus preserving it from bodily decay and bodily death.

Other writers have addressed these topics before – both in science fiction and in technology review books. But it looks to me that Bruce brings a greater level of rigour and a wider set of up-to-date research information. To continue quoting from the Preface:

The book is divided into three sections:

  1. The first develops the neurophysiological as well as philosophical foundations on which these advances may be made;
  2. The second describes the current state of the art, and neuroengineering developments that will be with us in the near term;
  3. The final part of the book speculates on what will happen in the long-term, and what it will be like to be a post-evolutionary entity…

The futurist will naturally be drawn to the final section, but in their case it is all the more imperative that the initial development be mastered, especially the chapters with a philosophical bent. The uploading of the soul to a chine is not just a matter of creating the proper technology; it is first and foremost figuring out what it means to have a soul…

As an unabashed futurist, I’m greatly looking forward to finding more time (somehow!) to read further into this book!



  1. David – for a fictional approach to this subject check out ‘Accelerando’ by Charles Stross – http://www.accelerando.org/

    Cheers, Paul

    Comment by Paul Merriman — 11 April 2009 @ 11:30 pm

  2. Hi Paul,

    Agreed, ‘Accelerando’ is a really fine piece of contemporary science fiction, with some mind-boggling ideas.

    Along broadly similar lines, I also greatly enjoyed ‘Permutation City’ by Greg Egan.

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 11 April 2009 @ 11:42 pm

  3. That looks like a neat book. I might have to read it sometime.

    You might also be interested in Zack Lynch’s new book The Neuro Revolution. It’s coming out in a few months. Zack does a top notch neurotechnology blog too.

    Also check out my own blog (just click on my name above to get there). I talk about new neuroengineering techniques to manipulate the brain.

    Nice blog by the way.

    Comment by Mike — 15 April 2009 @ 4:07 am

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