It's the year 2030 and humanity is on the cusp of a new epoch. Advancing computer technology has eroded the boundary between man and machine. Brains are enhanced with silicon chips and intelligence has become part biological, part technological. Soon we'll be able to download the contents of our mind to a hard drive, promising an escape from the most human of conditions - our mortality. This is the Singularity, the vision of inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. But his latest future scenario will only come about if we really can make brains and computers talk to one another and that depends on solving one of sciences greatest enigmas - cracking the neural code. From rats which can steer joysticks to monkeys which can control robotic arms smoothly by thought alone, Horizon follows Kurzweil's journey.
The Singularity is the vision of inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil has seen the future before – he predicted the world-wide web and the fall of the Soviet empire – and made several fortunes from it. But his latest future scenario will only come about if we really can make brains and computers talk to one another and that depends on solving one of sciences greatest enigmas – cracking the neural code.
In 1997, Miguel Nicolelis and John Chapin decided to do just that – but the task was daunting. As neuroscientists they knew that each brain is made up of more neurons than there are humans on the planet, and each one of those neurons ‘speaks’ to a small town’s worth of colleagues. This is our consciousness.
Migueal and John realised if they could understand how simple brain functions work – like how we make our arms reach out – then they may be able to solve the bigger puzzle. So they decided to put electrodes into the brains of animals, to see which neurons fired when the animal made simple movements. The technique became known as the ‘Brain Machine Interface’ or BMI.
Less than 10 years later, both are at the forefront of a rapidly expanding field. Miguel has a laboratory full of monkeys which can smoothly control robotic arms by thought alone, while John has rats that he can ‘steer’ with a joystick, by remote control. Both projects are funded by Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency – the branch of the US military which funds research into future technologies.
And their vision? As one director put it; “...imagine 25 years from now where old guys like me put on a helmet... and open our eyes; somewhere there will be a robot that will open its eyes, and we will be able to see what the robot sees. Imagine a warrior with the intellect of a human and the immortality of a machine.”