Brain-computer interfaces have been a staple of cyberpunk plots for decades. They have also been the subject of serious scientific research since the 70s, leading to impressive recent prototypes that allow humans to remotely control artificial limbs through their thoughts.
In the last few days, two headline-grabbing announcements appear to presage an era in which brain-computer interfaces will be standard components in commercial communication devices. First, it was reported that Elon Musk launched a company that will invest in research to make tools “that may one day upload and download thoughts”. Other companies are also in the works that have similar goals. And then Facebook revealed its plans to develop technology that would make it possible for users to compose outgoing messages via their thoughts and to “feel” incoming messages without reading them.
In this plausible scenario in which brain-computer interfaces are integrated into communication devices, humans will be able to literally communicate through their minds. We would therefore experience a transition from the upcoming Internet of Things to a next generations of communication networks supporting an Internet of Thoughts.
This idea was fictionalized in “Lock In“, a 2014 novel by John Scalzi. In Scalzi’s world, massive funds are allocated by the government on brain-computer interface research in the aftermath of an epidemic that left millions of Americans locked in, that is, unable to move and communicate. The plot revolves around the fact that networked elements are prone to hacking given their reliance on software (not unlike “Ghost in the Shell“). Hacking a brain, it turns out, may have quite unpleasant consequences — and not only for the hacked.
It has been reported that even the most experienced software programmers have a rate of error of 0.05%, so that, on average, programs have an error every 2,000 lines. This implies that there are thousands of bugs in a typical modern application, since, for instance, Android has 12 million lines of codes. The fact that only one error may be enough to compromise the security of a system highlights the significant challenges of securing a software-based networks from hacking.
The ongoing softwarization of everything from computing to telecommunication networks may well one day (perhaps not too soon) extend to our minds. One can only hope that breakthroughs in software security will outpace threats from hackers as this process unfolds.