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Brainternet: a peek into the future?

What about a future where brains are just another Internet of Thing components? Image credit: La Verdad nos espera

Back in 2017, that’s long time ago!, a university project Brainternet, made the headlines of several news. The project was (and still is) carried out at the Wits University, Johannesburg, South Africa, and by leveraging on portable (wearable) EEG harvested the signals resulting from the electrical activity of the brain and made them available on the Internet. It was claimed that this was the first time a brain was connected to the Internet, becoming an IoT.

The claim is true in a sense, indeed the portable EEG, as any other sensor, picks up the brain electrical activity and makes it available to the Internet. We surely say that a air-condition equipment is an IoT if it has a sensor picking up its status and sharing it on the Internet. So why not have the same claim for such a connected brain?

At the time I did not commented on the spreading news because to me it was not a big deal. All technology involved has been available for a long time and the claim, although true -strictly speaking- was misleading. A brain is so much more complex than an air-condition equipment and relaying the electrical activity (actually an infinitesimal portion of the electrical activity) did not really seemed (to me) as a true interconnection.

A different story is looking at the (declared) aims of Neuralink, where using implantable chips they feel it will be possible to connect the brain to a computer having the two exchanging information. Whilst Brainternet is a reality (but it connects really really little) Neuralink is a dream (or a nightmare – you decide-) that would provide a true connection.

The advantage of Brainternet is that is not that much invasive (as invasive as wearing a hat and taking around a purse) and it provides a steady flow of data that eventually might create a data set for some deep learning algorithm to make some sense out of it. It would require many people adopting it for some significant span of time to create a data lake with a sufficient number of data to hope for the emergence of some meaning, so far this has not been the case.

So, why did I choose to mention it today? Well, I am looking around on the web as part of the work we are doing in the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative to prepare the second White Paper (due in November this year) and in particular on the aspects of selves, multiple self, human augmentation. I stumbled onto an interesting article on Paperjam addressing ethical aspects of human augmentation, trans-humanism and post-humanism.
In the article the Brainternet was mentioned as a first step in the direction of a symbioses between our self, our brain, and the Internet. A sort of peek into the future. As I said, I do not see it as a real interconnection of our brain to the Internet, more as a prompt to consider the implication of such a connectivity when it will become real.

The article is making a call to look at ethical issues: even though we are quite far, in a technology sense, from the capability to create a brain to machine interconnection, the ethical issues this will open might require a long time to be addressed, hence the need to look at them today, as they are hypothetical, because the sentiment of many is not “if” they will ever become reality, rather “when” they will become reality.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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