Your Brain is Being Augmented, You Just Don't Realize It

The breakthrough innovation development of the year so far is the White House’s upcoming plan to map the entire human brain. By essentially enabling us to reverse-engineer the human brain, the Brain Activity Map proposed by scientists such as Harvard's George Church will forever change the way we think about artificial intelligence and potentially open up the door to new cures for mental illnesses. However, many of these developments may be a decade away -- or even several decades away. What’s less understood are all the myriad of ways that our brains are being augmented right now, today, in subtle ways that we may not even realize.

Slowly but surely, we’re moving our individual brains into the cloud, enabling us to know more, experience more and remember more -- all the while believing that it is our individual brain that is responsible for amazing feats of cognitive ability. On a daily basis, we're tapping into the accumulated knowledge of thousands - if not millions - of others with a simple tap or swipe on our mobile devices. Think about it – every day, each of us carries around in our pockets more computing power and access to more information than was available to our nation's scientists at NASA during the peak years of the lunar space program. And, as the amount of information on the Internet continues to grow exponentially, so does our access to this information.

The youngest generation, which grew up with all this technology, already recognizes this. They know that they do not actually have to learn anything - they just have to know where to find it in the cloud. Google, far from making us stupid, is actually making us smarter than ever imagined. This is especially true now that we've added geolocation tools to our mobile devices. Take, Google Maps, for example. In an interview with The Atlantic, Google's Michael Jones explained that Google Search and Google Maps may be worth an extra 20 points on your IQ:

"For instance, right now people walk around looking at directions on phones. In the future, the phone will signal you -- go left or straight ahead -- in words or sounds in your ear, or visually through your glasses, so you can just look where you're going and walk. It'll be like you're a local everywhere you go. You'll know your way through the back alleys and hutongs of Beijing, you'll know your way all around Paris even if you've never been before. Signs will seem to translate themselves for you. This kind of extra-smartness is coming to people. Effectively, people are about 20 IQ points smarter now because of Google Search and Maps. They don't give Google credit for it, which is fine; they think they're smarter, because they can rely on these tools. It's one reason they get so upset if the tools are inaccurate or let them down. They feel like a fifth of their brain has been taken out."

Google is already looking into ways that it can make its Android devices smarter by actually mimicking the structure and function of the human brain. When that happens, you will think of your mobile phone not just as a browser, but also as an adjunct brain available upon demand. That’s just the beginning, however. As Ray Kurzweil has explained before to believers in the Singularity, the future human of the mid-21st century will be a hybrid between man and machine, where the human-computer interface is largely invisible. The gap between animate and inanimate knowlege will be unrecognizable. Right now, every time you deal with a typical computer interface – like a screen or keyboard – you know that you are dealing with a computer. In the future, that won’t be the case. You will ask your friend a question, and you will have absolutely no idea where your friend got the answer. Nor will you care. Hewlett-Packard is already working on a personal avatar interface for the cloud -- a concierge that you can access at any time, across any platform or any device.

The really radical view of brain augmentation, however, does not come from the world of Silicon Valley - it comes from the world of chemistry, which is giving us an entirely new generation of designer DNA drugs. Just as athletes now rely on performance-enhancing drugs to achieve incredible new feats (yes, Mr. Armstrong, I'm talking to you) - everyday people may one day use designer drugs to enhance memory and cognitive ability. In Chapter 5 of their TED book Homo Evolutis, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans suggest several ways that that we may use drugs to change the chemistry of our brains in the pursuit of peak performance. When combined with breakthroughs in genetic engineering, we may even be on the cusp of creating a new species of human with vastly improved powers of cognition, learning and memory.

What it all means, of course, is that the Singularity may not be a single event, as we typically think of it. It will not be a Rapture of the Nerds, where we remind Siri to wake us up early to witness the blinding light of the Singularity during which we are all transformed into gods. Instead, the future augmentation of our brains will be much more gradual and nuanced. Once we started to consider our mobile devices to be extensions of our physical bodies - carrying them around with us wherever we go and imbuing them with characteristics such as personality - we set into motion a complex chain reaction of events that made the future hybrid of man and machine a certainty. 20 points on your IQ was just the start.

image: Short Circuit in Businessman Computer Brain / Shutterstock

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