We'll soon be able to download knowledge from the cloud — by thought alone

The neuralnanorobotics are coming.

  • In a new paper, 12 international researchers claim that an "internet of thoughts" might be mere decades away.
  • By utilizing neuralnanorobotics, humans will be able to download information from the cloud by thought alone.
  • Potential applications in medicine and education make this a promising endeavor, though the consequences are uncertain.

In a new paper, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, nanotechnology scientist Robert Freitas predicts that an "internet of thoughts" is a few decades away. The paper, co-written by a dozen international collaborators, states that this fast-tracking of digital technology will enable humans to download information from the cloud by thought alone.

The human brain/cloud interface (B/CI) is based on the work of the splendidly-named "neuralnanorobotics." In this telling of a utopian future, the tech will allow for the diagnoses and treatment of hundreds of brain diseases thanks to three species of neuralnanorobotics.

The researchers speculate that these tiny critters will break through the Brain-Blood Barrier — it protects our nervous system from fatal bacteria and pathogens — enter the promised land of the brain parenchyma, and "autoposition themselves at the axon initial segments of neurons (endoneurobots), within glial cells (gliabots), and in intimate proximity to synapses (synaptobots)."

Upon plugging into the Matrix, individuals will easily navigate the entirety of "cumulative human knowledge." A truly personalized Google isn't the only feature. Other applications include an education upgrade and sweet deals on travel. Well, sort of.

Ray Kurzweil: Get ready for hybrid thinking

Don't misunderstand: this is a fascinating and important technology. Take Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological ailment that results from a lack of dopamine-producing neurons. More than 10 million people suffer this tragic fate, which completely undermines motor control, resulting in rigid muscles, loss of autonomic functions, and severely limited speech and writing. A nanorobot that can identify and even fix this problem would be a breakthrough application.

The implementation of this technology will require a brain-machine interface (BMI), at least during its initial phases. Similar devices currently in the market include prosthetics that link artificial limbs with peripheral nerves. The team imagines a minimally invasive surgery to implant neuralnanorobotics — massively distributed or regionally specific, to be determined. Cloud computing power will also need an upgrade to handle the massive load of distributed information.

Philosophizing over medicine is one thing. We simply can't imagine this without hitches, and not only Google Glass-level failure. For example, I'm certain that Oculus, incredible as it currently is, will soon feel clunky, with its heavy headset and vest. One day the VR tech will only require glasses, or eyeshades, along with pair of sound pods that might also transmit vibrations down our spine to mimic video game bullets. Eventually contact lenses, then implants. Our virtual and augmented realities will be seamless.

Oculus, like this internet of thoughts, also features educational aspects. The team is championing new forms of learning. Recently I Oculused around my old college campus — in Google Maps — observing vast infrastructure upgrades since my time there. Perhaps in another decade or three I'll enter classrooms and download entire books directly to my cortex. Another boon.

But let's be realistic. Goldman Sachs estimates that virtual- and augmented-reality retail operations will fetch $1.6 billion by 2025. That's well before the neuralnanorobotics invade our parenchyma. Will anyone take advantage of this direct connection between cortex and cloud? Mark Zuckerberg infamously covers his laptop camera to protect himself from himself. Can we really expect that gliabots will be equipped with proverbial duct tape to shield our data from companies interested in our purchasing habits, political inclinations, sexual deviations, drugs of choice, and everything else about us?

Ray Kurzweil speaks at The SXSW Facebook Live Studio, March 13, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Travis P Ball/Getty Images for SXSW)

As fascinating as Oculus is, it's also disorienting. It takes me a few post-headset moments to integrate back into Reality 1.0. The researchers of the new study believe this sort of disassociation to be a feature.

"Fully immersive virtual reality may become indistinguishable from reality with the emergence of neuralnanorobotics, rendering many forms of physical travel obsolete. Office buildings might be replaced by virtual-reality (VR) environments in which conferences could be attended virtually, replacing today's VoIP conference calls and Internet-based video conference calls with highly realistic, fully immersive VR conferences in virtual-reality spaces."

Which is where a snowflake turns into the avalanche. Our sense of self is inextricably entwined with our environment. As our relationship to what we used to call "the environment" shifts to screens and headsets, disorientation will deepen. Our mental maps of our bodies navigating the surroundings — proprioception and exteroception — will become relatively obsolete. This imagination upgrade will come at a cost: the ability to control our bodies moving through space. Take a walk down any street in America and observe people walking around staring at their phones for a preview.

Despite the metaphysics of futurism, we still need our bodies. We need the planet too. As science writer, Feriss Jabr, wrote yesterday in celebration of Earth Day,

"Like many living creatures, Earth has a highly organized structure, a membrane and daily rhythms; it consumes, stores and transforms energy; and if asteroid-hitching microbes or space-faring humans colonize other worlds, who is to say that planets are not capable of procreation?"

Humans might be, as Jabr writes, "the brain of the planet," yet we do not comprise the entire nervous system. We remain dependent on the shaking and belching and raining planet that birthed us. Our obsessive pursuit of utopia, technological or otherwise, has never worked well. There's no sign it ever will, regardless of how clever our hubris causes us to be.

The authors of the paper call out our "biologically constrained cognitive abilities," portending a "safe, robust, stable, secure, and continuous real-time interface system" between our cortex and the cloud. Yet we've had this interface for eons. "Primitive" minds called it stargazing.

The entirety of human knowledge doesn't count for much if you never leave your pod. "Rendering many forms of physical travel obsolete" doesn't sound like much of an upgrade for a nomadic ape that fell in love with itself just a little too much. It sounds, in fact, like a marketing promise to an animal that willingly surrendered motor control in the incessant and crazed search for another dopamine hit.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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