Tech's new frontier: The human brain

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There may come a day when virtual personal assistants live in our brains. What will that mean for marketers?

Technology has finally crawled inside our bodies. At this year’s SXSW Interactive Festival, an array of inspiring speakers explored technology’s latest frontier: the human brain.

Improving on the human body using technology is nothing new of course. Tan Le, founder of EEG wearables company Emotiv, hailed achievements in human augmentation over the last 200 years, pointing to advances in prostheses as just one example, but said that this century "will be even more astounding."

What’s getting scientists excited, she said, is both "the scope and the scale of the enhancements." We are now able to connect the brain to the device, blending the machine with the material.

Using machine learning, it is possible to train algorithms to understand intention in the patterns of human thought and so to use brain waves alone to command and control our world—real or virtual.

Le's audience enjoyed a live demonstration of Emotiv’s consumer wearable, cheering enthusiastically as an audience volunteer finally succeeded in moving "Sphero" the robotic ball using the power of thought alone.

But neuro devices like these will allow us to do much more than knock a few balls around. What Le envisions is life-changing: a world where the physically impaired will be enabled to operate their own wheelchair or even drive a car; early biomarkers for degenerative brain conditions will be identified 20 to 30 years before the disease can take hold. The same technology will allow us to better understand human performance, Le said, to achieve better focus and to augment human capabilities.

Non-invasive headsets are one thing, but how many people would be happy to have a digital interface implanted inside their head?

That was the question posed at a panel led by Swissnex, Switzerland’s creative and tech hub in San Francisco. There were few takers in the crowd, yet that’s the goal for scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EFPL), which is working to develop a brain-spine interface that can reverse paralysis and restore close to natural movement in subjects with spinal cord injuries. While the technique is not yet licensed for use on humans, Gregoire Courtaine, professor of neuroprosthetics at the EFPL, shared news of recent success with the technique. In an astonishing clip, a formerly paralysed monkey walked independently on a treadmill.

For Bryan Johnson, founder of Kernel, a neuroprosthesis startup, the ultimate goal is perhaps even more jaw-dropping. His aim is to achieve "read-write access to the human brain." For Johnson, exploring the potential of the human brain is "the most epic adventure we can imagine as a species."

While much of the science in this space looks to help those with brain injuries or impairments, Johnson points to a coming debate around evolutionary rights. He believes that the able-bodied—led by a bio-curious movement at the vanguard—will increasingly demand access to technology that can help them overcome their limitations to learn more and to absorb more data. "Imagine holding a conversation with the whole room, all at once," he said.

Neural enhancement will be crucial to enable humans to adapt and compete with artificial intelligence on a level playing field. "If we don’t co-evolve with AI it will represent an existential threat to our species."  

Tackling the challenge could reap unimagined rewards. "The human brain is the creator of reality," Johnson said. "We can’t imagine what it is capable of."

Judging from the Virtual Psychedelics session, the brain works in mysterious ways that we don’t fully understand yet. An absorbing panel explored virtual reality as a tool to alter perception. Panellist Taryn Southern of Happy Cat Media likened the effects of VR on the brain to psychotropic drugs like LSD or psilocybin.

Where VR has shown particular efficacy is in its power to trick the brain. What the brain sees, it accepts as reality. Sook-Lei Liew of the University of Southern California revealed to audible gasps that subjects who appear to have long arms in VR will then behave as though they have long arms in real life. Similarly, a subject shown the perspective of a child will behave in a childlike way, even after the virtual experience is over. So if you give someone a healthy body in VR, Liew asked, can you trick their brain into believing it?

Reality is questionable anyway it seems. The panel discussed the research of Donald Hoffman, who claims that the majority of our perception is created by our subconscious. It stands to reason that we might be able to manipulate it.

So far, so sci-fi, but what could all this mean for marketers? It’s early days and as many a panellist was at pains to point out, the brain is still largely undiscovered territory. But if the likes of Le and Johnson are right, then perhaps we can expect a future where we can command and control the world around us using just our minds. We might harness our subconscious to make decisions, bypassing our rational brain. We might multitask without loss of performance, enabling us to compete with machines. And we might create our own realities and inhabit them at will.

Such a future is far off, but as Le said, it’s clear that "the future of our bodies will be determined by technology." 

—Marie Stafford is the European director of The Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson.