As developments in neuroscience and new technologies reveal more and more about the inner workings of our brain, decoding the brain’s neural activity might change how we perceive and relate to the world. Understood as a moment in an evolution towards more intimate interfaces and control of things, brain-computer interfaces (BCI) will have significant and disruptive effects on our lives.
The neural activity of the brain can be explained by making an analogy to stadiums: from outside the stadium, you can hear cheering and shouting about what is going on, but to know which team is winning or who scored, you need inside information. The same goes with the brain: from the outside, you can see what is going on, but to get a high-resolution image of the brain’s information and experiences, scientists need to look inside our skulls. Recent developments in neuroscience and technology show that we are at the beginning of understanding how we can monitor the neural activity of the brain and map the experiences we have. A further step is understanding how we can manipulate this information and inner states of the brain, for example to restore biological functionalities like sight and sense. The ‘only’ thing needed are interfaces to directly exchange this information and encode and decode information from the sender’s brain to recipients.Although the possible use cases and wider implications are astonishing, the idea of these BCIs is conceptually not something new. On a basic level, BCIs enhance and transfer information from the brain by using external sources and devices. Previous innovations already did the same, and even the first language and scripture fixed the thoughts of the mind into a codified system of (semantic) symbols and verbal utterances to make communication of information more efficient. With the Gutenberg press, the speed of this communication of information and ideas further improved, and the dawn of modern IT, such as computers, e-mails, and smartphones, the speed of information diffusion and communication further accelerated. By calling our friends and talking about our problems or writing blogs on the internet about our favorite food, the brain is able to externalize the information that is inside. In this sense, BCIs are just a further improvement of spreading information and communicating inner states and experiences.However, BCIs also increase the resolution and accuracy of the communication of brain information towards external sources, giving BCIs more disruptive power than restoring biological functionality alone. The higher accuracy of BCIs enables us to have immediate contact with other human or synthetic brains. Furthermore, when multiple brains get connected to one cloud platform they create a collective consciousness. This ‘hive mind’ can be very useful for problems that require collaboration, like scientific problems, or human interaction with AI systems. Moreover, when BCIs are be connected to other cloud databases on the internet, we can download requested information at any time: when going on holiday, one can download a travel guide that is accessed and consumed via one’s BCI. ‘Electroceuticals’, devices that control the electronic signal firing within the nerve system, can help to fight chronic illnesses, but can also improve our current biological capacities, like our reflexes or football skills. These examples show that as the brain becomes our interface, it will create a whole new way of relating and experiencing our world.