#32: Implant Memory Chips in Our Brains

Dr. Gary Marcus, a psychology professor at New York University, says we should develop a "Google-like" chip that could be implanted in our brains to enhance human memory.

Dr. Gary Marcus, a psychology professor at New York University, tells Big Think that we should develop a "Google-like" chip to implant in our brains that would use our neurons like a search engine and enhance human memory.

"Human memory is not all that efficiently organized as compared to computer memory," says Marcus. "In a computer, every memory goes to a pre-allocated location. In a human being, it’s sort of like a shoebox full of memory. It’s sort of all there, but it’s disorganized. We don’t quite know how to pull out the particular thing that we want.”

Marcus developed the idea for a memory-enhancing brain chip after writing his 2008 book "Kluge" (whose title refers to the computer-science word for a clumsy solution). The kluges Marcus describes in his book are the human mind’s limitations, which he thinks stem mostly from memory. “The thesis of that book, was that human mind is a kluge,” says Marcus, “And one of the principal reasons that I think it’s a kluge is because our memory is so poorly organized relative to how much memory it works.” It then became obvious to Marcus that a memory-enhancing brain chip would be incredibly useful for people.

“There are ways that we already have narrow solutions to our memory problems,” says Marcus, but he says they are hacks—plastic devices to organize medicine and pills, electronic devices to find missing car keys, new applications to find misplaced iPhones. “We need all of these things because our memories are so fundamentally disorganized,” he says.

Marcus thinks the foremost technical obstacle is that "we don’t really understand enough about how the brain works." In order to augment human cognition, he says, scientists must first efficiently read brain code, and understand what type of memory is unique to humans, as well as how the brain stores declarative information—like where the car keys are. Marcus says the easier part of implementing the technology is the computer side, as there are already machines that can store large quantities of information. “The amount of computer memory to solve that problem is trivial,” says Marcus, “The hard part is to translate between what’s in the brain and getting into that computer representation.”

While Marcus is not personally working on advancing the science behind his theories, he does know scientists working in this direction. For instance, Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University's Center for Neuroengineering, discovered in 2005 how to make monkeys control robotic arms with their brains, initiating right, left, up, and down movements. Marcus says this is in the right spirit of lab work for translating brain activity, but it still doesn’t grasp how the robot arm would work in between tasks, or remember what movements to instigate in memorized and sequential order.  

Two other challenges concern Marcus: privacy and equality. The former—securing people’s personal and private memories—seems easiest to overcome, as a computer-based issue. The latter—making sure that the technology is available to everyone—is a crucial consideration. Marcus calls the chip a “steroid for the brain,” and says it will inevitably be made and sold. Therefore, understanding brain code, and connecting it with a computer chip, is the next pivotal frontier, analogous to how cracking the DNA code astronomically progressed science.


Takeaway

Computers store information like a stack of trays in a cafeteria, where the last tray placed put down in the stack is the first in line to pick up. This is what Dr. Gary Marcus calls embedded layers—taking care of the most pressing issue at hand. He says that “people are terrible at that. You’re supposed to get groceries, but then you get a phone call. At the end of the day you’re tired. You end up driving home on autopilot." Marcus believes that a memory-enhancing brain chip will help solve these human limitations.

Why We Should Reject This

“There seem to be really important functions to forgetting,” says Dr. Ellen McGee, a medical ethicist and retired Long Island University C.W. Post professor. While McGee focuses her research on the ethical implications of using any type of neural interfacing, she says it is unclear that a memory-enhancing device will be good for humans.

McGee is concerned with how brain chips might affect vulnerable populations: children, prisoners, and countries with dictatorships and a lack of democratic input. “What of those who are not able to control it,” she says, noting that commercially available brain chips will exacerbate inequity. “If you’re going to change humans radically and you leave some humans out of the equation, they’re really going to be second class citizens. But if we wanted to provide this kind of technology for everyone, how would we afford it?”

McGee doesn’t think brain chips should be banned altogether, but she does advocate for regulations at a state, national, and international level that will overlook both the production and distribution of neural implants. The creation of a memory enhancing device seems inevitable, so it’s crucial that its use is overseen, she says, because these chips will radically affect humans.

“We have memories that cause us trauma,” says McGee, “We have memories that make us guilty. We have memories that if we were flooded with them, might keep us from being able to act in the present, and to enjoy the present. So, it’s not clear how humans with 'total recall' would function."

More Resources

— “Implantable brain chips: ethical and policy issues,” 2001 paper by Dr. Ellen McGee and colleague Dr. Gerald Q. Maguire, Jr.

— “Potential of Using Brain Power to Propel Prostheses advance at Stanford,” a 2006 news release by Stanford University’s School of Medicine.

The Human Hard Drive: How We Make (And Lose Memories), Big Think/Going Mental.

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."