How'd you like a computer in your head?
Brain implants are staples of both science fiction and speculative conversations about the future. I noted a few months ago that a surprisingly large portion of the Metaverse Roadmap crowd considered brain implants as the logical extension of the virtual world-real world crossover. The worlds of novels like Neuromancer and games like Transhuman Space are filled with jacked-in, chipped up citizens. I've even raised the possibility in some of my talks about the later stages of the Participatory Panopticon.
This week, James Hughes, my colleague at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, was quoted by the Saint Petersburg Times in an article about the potential for implanted communication devices. Given his visibility as a proponent of transhumanism, you might expect that he'd be all for getting wired up. He's not -- he's rather cautious, in fact.
"We're moving inside" the body with cell phones, said James Hughes, a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of Citizen Cyborg. "My opinion is it is realistic. But for at least a couple of decades, I don't think it's going to be terribly attractive to open up our heads."
I'd go further than that. Until we reach a stage where nano-magical systems can rewire our brains at will, I don't see non-therapeutic brain implants ever becoming popular. Cortical implant systems to deal with severe physiological disabilities are already available, and such devices will just get better and more widely available. But voluntary brain implants for enhancement purposes? Count me as a nay-sayer, for reasons that should be familiar to anyone who has purchased consumer electronics.
The first is stability: I have yet to encounter a piece of electronic gear or computer hardware that doesn't crash on a semi-regular basis. Would you want a chip in your head made by the same folks that made your cell phone? How about having your brain run Windows, or even Linux? Even if we assume that implanted devices are built to higher standards than something you'd pick up at Best Buy, you're still left with the uncomfortable knowledge that even high-end, military-grade systems can and will have flaws. These are complex devices; I don't want to have to ctl-alt-del my brainjack, let alone deal with a all-too-plausible "fatal error."
If you're going to connect something directly to your brain, you really want it to work.
The second reason is upgradability: unless or until we live in a world of risk-free, cheap and easy brain surgery, once you get something implanted, it's going to stay there for awhile. Hughes alludes to this; brain surgery isn't something you can wander into the shopping mall and deal with over lunch. It's a major bodily trauma, and certainly not something you'd want to do over and over again. Unfortunately, in a world of ongoing Moore's Law acceleration of technological power, today's cutting-edge implant is tomorrow's obsolete piece of junk -- and good luck if the protocols change or you're on the wrong side of a "format war" (anyone want a betamax implant?). There's no way to avoid falling further and further behind without going under the knife time and again.
But how many of us would want to be stuck with the computer or mobile phone we had five or ten years ago?
Fortunately, this is all a solved problem. We can use external information and communication devices -- Hughes refers to these as "exocortical technology," but you can just think of them as "the stuff you already have." If a phone or computer crashes, it's an annoyance but rarely fatal, and upgrading can be done as often as one can afford.
Implanted computers are a staple of science fiction in large part because they admirably provide one of the key tensions of the genre: a vision of tomorrow that it simultaneously compelling and disturbing. Plugging something into the brain raises all sorts of questions about safety and control -- what does happen if a brain implant fails? How long after the first brain computer is out will we see the first brain computer rootkit? At the same time, fictional implants show a world in which communication and information technologies are quite literally a part of us -- an observation of our lives turned into flesh and silicon.
Brain implants in fiction and futurism are, in the end, metaphors, not blueprints.