This past weekend, the 92nd Street Y hosted the 2009 Singularity Summit. Maybe you’ve already heard of Ray Kurzweil and his widely cited book The Singularity is Near, but here’s the gist just in case: Kurzweil and many others claim the exponentially increasing rate of technological development is evidence for a shift in the near future —a shift called the Singularity—during which artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence and machines will supersede humans as the dominant sentient forces on the planet. If this sounds like something out of The Matrix and more than a little kooky—don’t worry, you’re not alone. But the Singularity Summit wasn’t just an excuse for enthusiastic futurists and computer science geeks to stand up on a soapbox and spout speculation—the Summit welcomed a diverse range of scientists whose presentations described some really fascinating current research. One that caught my attention in particular was Ed Boyden of MIT.
Boyden’s speech focused on synthetic neurobiology—a field in which researchers create technology that interacts directly with the brain—and a remarkable technique for specifically manipulating individual neurons, a technique Boyden helped pioneer. Many organisms—such as jellyfish, algae and bacteria—produce light-activated protein pumps. Using harmless viruses as vehicles to transport DNA coding for these proteins from one organism to another, researchers can make neurons in the animals they study light-sensitive as well. What’s more, by using different kinds of protein pumps—one which excites neurons in response to blue light and one which inhibits them in response to yellow light—they can precisely determine whether the neurons fire or not. Eager for an unprecedented level of control over different parts of the brain and nervous system, researchers have readily adopted the technique, successfully applying it to a range of animal models, from zebra fish to primates.
So what does any of this have to do with the Singularity? Well, during his presentation at the Summit, Boyden described attempts to make fiber optic implants for the human brain, implants that could directly stimulate or inhibit neurons with light. Let’s think about this: brain implants that precisely determine whether our neurons are firing or not? Sure, there’s great therapeutic potential here—especially for diseases that involve abnormal firing patterns, like epilepsy and Parkinson’s—but there’s also something a bit alarming. The technology Boyden described is similar to deep brain stimulation (DBS)—in which an implanted brain pacemaker regulates specific areas of neurons—but there is a crucial difference: present day DBS uses electrical stimulation, which is not nearly as precise as light stimulation. The more sophisticated the technology with which we study the brain becomes, the more we learn about the brain’s function and the better we become at treating psychological disorders; on the other hand, one can’t help but imagine how precise control of individual neurons could turn into the kind of mind control science fiction has long warned us against. Scarily, fiber optics have already been used to stimulate the brain in mice, as this little fellow demonstrates: when the light goes on, he involuntarily runs in circles:
If Kurzweil is right—and computers will soon be smarter than us—I’m sure they’ll take full advantage of any mind-controlling technology at their disposal. Who knows: maybe the Singularity already happened and we’re nothing more than a bunch of brains in vats, lapping up the rays of light that power our dream reality—all for the amusement of our supercomputer overlords.