By Dr. Vijak Haddadi
(from July 17, 2019)
We all know by now that we are living through one of the greatest revolutionary shifts in human history. The digital revolution has made the world hyperconnected, allowed us to communicate across the planet, collect and analyze vast amounts of data, automate and optimize all sorts of processes from production to transportation, and render content available instantaneously at the click of a button. Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and more recently, Tencent and Alibaba, have become digital behemoths and the largest companies the world has ever seen through driving and popularizing key digital innovations.
But as impressive these current shifts seem, the most impactful waves of transformation are yet to come. The project that is likely to have the greatest impact not just on how we live but literally on how we experience existence itself, is the synthesis of technology and consciousness. Despite years of multidisciplinary research by cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers, consciousness is still a riddle to be solved for modern science. Nonetheless, there have been significant advances in figuring out which types of brain activity correlate with various contents of consciousness, and how signals and information processed in our neural systems can be connected to, copied, or modified through technology, leading to startling innovations in areas such as neuroprosthetics.
Multiple projects are currently underway which aim at generating usable brain-computer-interfaces (BCI) or mind-machine-interfaces (MMI), such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink initiative. As these projects advance, we are bound to see a series of paradigm shifting ventures emerge. The world will simply no longer be what it used to be when these neurotech innovations hit home. I predict entirely new industries and venture sectors to emerge and disrupt everything from communications over work to entertainment. Let’s look at 5 such major game changers.
1. Implantable Smartphone
The first mention on this list is not really that far away. Come to think of it, the smartphone, this extraordinarily impactful device which has revolutionized our lives by giving us the ability to communicate, be entertained, be informed, play games, or use one of millions of apps to engage in all kinds of transactions (for stocks, a ride, a car, a date, shopping, you name it) at any time and in (almost) any place, has had a remarkably stagnant design history.
Once Steve Jobs stepped in front of the masses in 2007 and revealed the IPhone like a modern day prophet revealing the revered artefact of a new religion, the smartphone basically crystallized into its final form – that of a kind of flat brick with a screen and wireless connection.
As much as this gadget has helped shape our age and shape our experience of what it means to be human, a time will certainly come in a not so distant future, when people (or post-human intelligences) will look back with bemusement at the fact that we have to carry a little brick shaped object with us at all times in order to take care of our most essential needs. The next few generations of smartphones are already being devised to resolve this inconvenience by implanting the phone’s electronics somewhere in our body, and transposing the screen somewhere along our body, into our skin, on our retina, in our augmented environments, or on some wearable eyeglasses.
But the real breakthrough will occur once we figure out how to get rid of the device altogether and directly install the interface unto our neural system. No more screens, no more gadgets to carry around, no more chargers, just a permanent state of being directly plugged in to the global web of content, information, and applications.
2. Electronically Aided Telepathy
Once we have figured out how to connect our brains to computers and plug our minds directly into the cloud, a logical next step will be to connect brains directly to other brains. Why not just send thoughts, information, images, and other contents of conscious experience directly to someone else who would presumably receive them the same way we now receive text, video or sound messages. Dreamsharing will be possible – “wait, let me send you this dream I had last night, it was really wild, maybe you can help me figure out what it means.” Send. Receive. Watch in the internal cinema of your mind, right after your latest educational experience or “brain movie”. Sounds crazy? Get used to crazy because something along these lines is coming soon.
Ventures like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, Facebook’s hardware research arm, and startups like Kernel or CTRL-Labs are currently exploring the frontiers of brain-computer and brain-to-brain interfaces. But an avenue that is not receiving enough attention (or no publicized attention) is how these R&D projects could connect to the exploration of non-electronically aided telepathy and so called psychic phenomena. While the existence of such phenomena has been vigorously denied by professional skeptics (trying to defend their current materialistic paradigm of science), peer-reviewed research and independent studies as those surveyed and collected by Dean Radin and the Institute for Noetic Sciences (IONS) have proven time and time again that communication or influence at distance is at least possible in some cases (even if it is not possible to consistently reproduce the effect on demand). But we shouldn’t be surprised. If quantum physics now accepts that action at a distance (or nonlocality) exists in nature, then why should consciousness not be able to act at a distance as well? Wouldn’t it be less logical and more unreasonable to assume so?
3. Fully Immersive Virtual Reality
If you have watched Black Mirror episodes such as San Junipero, Hang the DJ, or USS Callister, you will be familiar with some of the possibilities, opportunities and threats of fully immersive reality simulation. What is meant here is a virtual reality world which, unlike the pretty basic versions that you can currently enter by strapping on a big clumsy headset, is so real and so multisensory that your brain won’t be able to tell the difference between this virtual reality and the ‘real’ reality that you experience in everyday life. The very possibility of this opens up a philosophical can of worms, with questions about the nature of reality, illusion, Maya, what’s ‘really real’ and how the value of an experience is shaped by it having a higher or lower degree of realness.
Philosophers have literally been grappling with this set of questions since forever, from Plato’s cave analogy to Descartes’ malicious demon who feeds false sensory data into minds (or the more modern ‘brain in a vat’ version) to Baudrillard’s hyperreal simulacrum whom Neo is reading in the Matrix, before finding out that he himself is inhabiting a simulation (and subsequently, in the third part of the trilogy, realizing that the simulation was actually part of some larger cosmic plan worked out to protect the balance between machines and humans). The question here is: is something I experience less real because its source of stimuli is not ‘ordinary’ physical reality? From a practical perspective, highly advanced meditators and lucid dreamers are also familiar with this question since being able to walk through dreams with full consciousness confronts you with the same thought. Once the technology is there we will be able to test and record answers. Experimental metaphysics!
4. Artificially Intelligent Guardian Angel
The next innovation on our list sounds a bit far fetched but makes perfect sense once you think about it for a bit. We are seeing a massive increase in self-care apps right now which were the top-trending app category of 2018 (on Apple’s App Store), and which along with the promotion of mindfulness in workplaces the world over from Google and Apple to Nike, is part of a global macro trend towards bringing mental health and self-actualization (the highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid) into focus for business.
Add to this the emergence of AI-based personal assistants, the coming generations of which will not just make your life easier by handling tasks such as booking appointments, ordering groceries, or doing your bookkeeping, but will also gradually step up their ability to give you advice, coaching, and guidance on how to live a more successful, healthier and overall fulfilled life.
Possibilities for generating such advice abound in the data age. Predictive analytics and big data will be able to tell us how a person with your characteristics is likely to do when engaging in certain activities such as studying law or taking some professional development course. Analysis of your genetics plus monitoring of your biometric data (through wearables and implants) can add vital information on which sleep patterns, nutritional habits, music choices, or fitness activities you should engage in to maximize your potential. Integrate all of the above and your personal assistant has morphed into a veritable guardian angel or good spirit of sorts who accompanies your life choices through benevolent, evidence-based advice.
5. Mental Performance Enhancement Technologies
Let’s get to our last innovation. The past decades have seen a continuous upsurge in the understanding of mindset in enhancing performance and mental health. While previously the type of mindset mastery taught by NLP practitioners, life coaches, and self-help gurus like Tony Robbins used to be chiefly at home in private self-help seminars (albeit with resounding financial success), today mindset coaches, speakers and educators have a rock solid place not only in organizations and leadership seminars but also amongst educational curricula of universities and professional development bodies.
Advances in neuroscience have allowed us to understand which neurophysiological factors contribute to enhanced performance, for instance leading to the insights on flow state championed by people like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi or Steven Kottler. Thanks to the work of these pioneers, engineering flow state is now on the agenda of coaches and facilitators working with innovation leaders and entire organizations.
Moreover, research by psychologists like Stanislav Grof, into altered state of consciousness, brought about by techniques like meditation, holotropic breathing, and psychoactive substances, has yielded solid evidence for beneficial effects on health, well-being, performance and overall fulfillment. Given this backdrop, and the rapid advance of performance enhancement through wearables, augmented reality, and especially synthetic biology advances like CRISPR gene editing, we should soon be seeing implants and physical modifications which allow athletes and elite performers (and eventually regular individuals) to tap into peak performance and optimized states of consciousness at a click of a button.