The invention of written language was a game-changer in human history. For the first time, we didn’t have to trust our memory, and that of others in our tribe, to preserve important knowledge. We could write it down. Others, at a later time or in another place, could read it. That provided a framework for enormous progress. Access to personal computers and then the internet, have also been huge leaps ahead in terms of the availability of knowledge and other forms of what could generally be called “problem solving”, from math calculations to determining a location on a map to keeping track of appointments.
These days we joke about our phones being smarter than we are. And I predict that, within the next half-century, technological capabilities much greater than those of our smartphones will be part of customizable brain “augments” that will interface directly with our own biological grey matter. But a recent article at The Conversation got me thinking about that. Some recent neuroscience studies appear to show that our brains selectively forget some information in favour of newer similar data. That’s a good thing: who wants to remember the pin number of a bank card you lost months ago when you’re trying hard to recall the new one? And while certain middle-brain structures like the hippocampus may be crucial for memory storage, it looks like the pre-frontal cortex determines which remembered data is the most relevant to a desired action. Think of it as being like the Google algorithms that show you search results appropriate to your location, previous searches, and other personal data, rather than just any random answer that meets your search keywords. Even with that help, you know how hard it can sometimes be to find what you’re really looking for (instead of a list of porn sites just as your boss is looking over your shoulder).
When we do have brain augments, something—biological or mechanical—will have to act as a similar filter, coordinating the functions and search retrieval. A significant amount of brainpower might have to be allocated to this. Your smartphone probably has a dozen apps you never use, but if we do the same thing with brain augments, the result will be needless mental overload.
So what kinds of brain augmentation would you most want?
Extra storage capacity, the better to remember all of those special moments in perfect detail (and where you left your car keys)? Well, don’t forget that the bigger the hard drive the longer it takes to categorize and locate specific data. Your recall might be total, but slow. Cloud storage would offer benefits and drawbacks.
How about better facial recognition, tied to the correct names and relevant data? I could go for that (great with faces, terrible with names). And it would be pure gold for politicians and sales reps.
Social media, instant messaging, and chat functions could take on an almost telepathic quality (although, would all of your Facebook friends really be welcome right in your head?)
A GPS and mapping function would make sure you could never get lost, or, even more exciting, never lose your car in the mall parking lot.
The possibilities are many, BUT let’s not forget that our brains do forget, very deliberately. Not only do they forget old stuff in favour of information that’s currently in greater demand, but neural pathways that are no longer used eventually disappear. So with every regular brain function that we replace with a digital equivalent, we might eventually lose the ability to do that task on our own (try solving a multi-part math equation without your calculator sometime).
Customizable brain augments will come, but before they do, lets give some thought to exactly what we want from them. While we’ve still got practice at thinking “outside” the digital box.