Here Come The Dannies

Take a quick look, a sneak peek, into our not-so-distant future, courtesy of the great science-fiction writer Peter Watts(1), who writes in Aeon magazine: “You already know that we can run machines with our brainwaves. That’s been old news for almost a decade… But we’ve moved beyond merely thinking orders at machinery. Now we’re using that machinery to wire living brains together.”

How close are we to human telepathy? Well — define telepathy. I mean, slap on a cheap Neurosky or Emotiv headset, have a friend do the same, carve up your Google Cardboard so its fits over them, code up a rudimentary two-way protocol to communicate between each person’s headset and the other person’s smartphone, and guess what, that is a kind of direct mind-to-mind communication. Crude, confusing, and low-bandwidth, to be sure; but also something any hackerspace denizen worthy of the name could throw together out of homegrown software and off-the-shelf hardware.

But that’s not real telepathy. For that we’d have to have mind-to-mind communication without any of our clumsy senses getting in the way. And that’s a long way away, obviously, right? We’d need something like — well —

Neurosilicon interfaces, for example. We’ve had those for more than a decade now. In labs around the world, neuron cultures put robot bodies through their paces; puddles of brain tissue drive flight simulators […] DARPA has thrown its weight behind the development of a ‘cortical modem’, a direct neural interface wired right into your gray matter […] Sony has registered blue-sky patents for technology that plants sensory input directly into the brain using radio waves and compressed ultrasound

to quote Watts in Aeon, again. How far away, exactly, are we from real people with implanted DNIs? (I hereby christen such people “dannies” for the sake of narrative convenience.) And who will the first such people be?

I’m not qualified to speculate about the former, though I note the accelerating speed of neuroscience development with raised eyebrows, but I can make a bet about the latter. Very few people are eager to sign up for experimental brain surgery. That’s only an option you plump for if you’re completely out of alternatives. So the first dannies — arguably, humanity’s first real superhumans — will probably be survivors of motorcycle accidents and serious congenital medical conditions. There’s a nice irony for you.

So what happens when we have actual telepathy? I mean, let’s not get crazy, it’s not like people are going to form hive minds, right? Those don’t actually exist — oh, wait.

You already are a hive mind. You always have been. […] Hemispheric isolation can also be induced chemically, by anaesthetising half the brain – and the undrugged hemisphere, unshackled from its counterpart, sometimes manifests a whole new suite of personality traits right on the spot […] Consciousness remains mysterious. But […] one of the things we do know is that consciousness spreads to fill the space available.

(Watts again. In case it isn’t already clear, I strongly urge you to click through and read the whole piece. He also writes about ongoing research into implantable memories; rats who learn to use a new physical sense entirely new to their species; the nature of consciousness; etcetera.)

So what the heck, let us speculate: what will the emergent effects of the existence of dannies be? How much “space” will be available to the consciousness(es)? And by “space” we really mean “bandwidth.” What is the bandwidth of consciousness? And how do you define–and secure–telepathic protocols?

In humans, consciousness falters and fades away if the round-trip signal lag between neurons exceeds 400 milliseconds. For reference, light can travel all the way around the planet in 133 milliseconds, and Google considers a server “slow” if its response time exceeds 200 milliseconds. Even on today’s Internet, 400 ms is not a particularly high bar. Just saying.

People tend to be excited and/or terrified about artificial intelligence. It seems to me that we should be a lot more interested in and/or concerned by augmented intelligence; that the first superhuman intelligence is more likely to be built atop existing human mind(s) than something coded up from scratch. I’m obviously speculating wildly in this column. It’s a subject for which wild speculation is really the only appropriate approach. But you can easily make a case that when they arrive, direct neural interfaces–and the dannies–will be the most significant development yet in the history of homo sapiens.

They’re decades away yet, sure. (Probably.) But that still seems awfully close to me.

(1) Disclaimer/disclosure: Peter’s a personal friend, though his greatness can be objectively and independently verified.