I wrote this in February 2016, before I knew of Neuralink’s existence. It was in response to the following question:
What are the biggest ways in which the world 20 years from now will probably be different from today? What are the biggest “X factors” (changes that are not probable, but are possible and could be huge)?
Implants + Internet = ImplanTelepathy™!
There will be quite a few threats and opportunities facing humanity in the next few decades. They are often relatively easy to speculate about, and even draw historical analogies with. For example, shortages of food and water will cause major strife around the world. Climate change will cause chaos and destruction. Inequality will exacerbate political instability. Technology will replace more and more jobs.
But I’d like to propose a future development that is conceivable, yet in my opinion unprecedented in its potential for transformation: the emergence of biotechnology-based telepathy. The spread of a “neuro-technology” that enables telepathy would be a consciousness-altering world event, in every sense of the word “consciousness”. A telepathic society might be totally unlike anything we’ve seen before: it might become a hive mind, or perhaps a collection of hive minds interacting in ways that we can barely imagine. ‘ImplanTelepathy’ could alter how we see our selves, and how we organize society and culture.
This sounds like yet another wild sci-fi concept, but I actually think it may be more feasible than “mind uploading“. In fact there are already tentative steps towards “direct” brain-to-brain communication. Brains are incredibly complicated, and the forms of communication that they enable may be the most mysterious biological process of all. But interestingly, we may not even need to understand how the brain works in order to achieve ‘ImplanTelepathy’. We may only need to develop neural implants that are both data-rich and internet-enabled. Once they’re in place, the brain’s own ability to learn through plasticity might take care of the rest. Essentially, implants attached to the nervous system can become new senses. And amazingly, adding new senses is not science fiction. We can already do it, to some extent!
Technology already exists to allow blind people to “see” with their tongues. It works like this: a special camera is connected to a mouthpiece that converts video signals into stimulation patterns on the tongue. The tongue sends these signals to the brain, and with a little bit of training, the signals eventually become experienced as vision! The technology works because of the brain’s ability to adapt to any sort of signal it receives. We don’t quite know how it works, however — whether the signals somehow get re-routed to the visual cortex, or whether the somatosensory cortex (which receives neural signals from the tongue and other parts of the body) can somehow serve as the basis for the subjective experience of seeing.
Adding any kind of new sense is itself an exciting prospect. There are already several different kinds of body modification that can give you a new sense. One tool gives the brain access to the earth’s magnetic field, allowing the wearer to always know his or her orientation with respect to magnetic north. All you really need to do is give the brain information. With training, the brain can learn how this information correlates with processes in the body and in the world. Amazingly, the information can be “fed” into the nervous system from seemingly anywhere. One team of researchers is developing ways to turns audio signals into vibrations that are felt on the back — allowing deaf people to “feel” speech through their backs! (This kind of technology could also lead to controlled forms of synesthesia — we could smell sounds, taste textures, or touch sights.)
Now imagine if instead of sending video, audio, or magnetic signals, we give the brain access to signals from someone else’s brain? Or from multiple people’s brains, simultaneously? If our implants could send and receive a rich “survey” of brain activity, we might be able to sense each others’ minds and bodies. We might figure out how to communicate telepathically using language; we might even develop entirely new, non-linguistic forms of communication.
If I were writing a sci-fi plot, I’d imagine this process unfolding in a serendipitous way, as the unexpected consequence of incremental and seemingly unrelated technological developments. Let’s say the Quantified Self movement really kicks off in the near future, and people start to use apps and implants to record their own biosensor data. Perhaps some mischievous hackers develop a way to breach privacy and access this data. Then just when people start to panic, things get really crazy: someone figures out that the existing biosensors can not only record and transmit data, but also receive data from elsewhere — and pipe it into the brain.
It’s like the reverse of what happens in the movie Batman Forever. The Riddler’s brainwave device — “the Box” — started out as a way to insert brainwaves into someone in order to facilitate virtual reality. The Riddler becomes the Riddler when he discovers by accident that he can actually receive brainwaves from the users of the Box. This gives him access to the minds of Gotham city’s residents (and also makes him super-intelligent somehow). ImplanTelepathy might emerge in the reverse order: “quantified selfers” might start out with the intention to store and analyze their own signals, and might then discover that the technology is a two-way street.
Imagine being able to share in other people’s joys and sorrows! It might be a euphoric experience. It might also be traumatic. Imagine having access to the mind of a psychopath. Or even just a garden-variety weirdo. Imagine having your own private thoughts and feelings broadcast to the world like a continuous stream of over-sharing tweets.
Some people might be horrified and unplug very quickly. Others might decide that they don’t really care about privacy, and that they have the stomach to experience alien minds. The early adopters of ImplanTelepathy might find that they end up sacrificing far more than their personal information though. They might even sacrifice their sense of self.
Scientists and philosophers don’t really understand the sense of self, or consciousness. No one can even agree on what the word consciousness means, let alone how it works. But I think that one crucial foundation of consciousness is integration — between perception and action, between mind and body, and also between organism and environment. Integration forms part of a popular new theory of consciousness called integrated information theory. In a nutshell, it proposes that consciousness depends on how well integrated different parts of the brain (or any system) are. A system in which parts communicate well with each other is “conscious”, according to this theory. One feature of the theory (or bug, depending on your perspective) is that it seems to imply that almost anything might be conscious — even rather abstract “things”, like the internet. One philosopher used this kind of idea to write a fascinating and funny argument for why “the United States Is Probably Conscious”.
Even now, without telepathy, it can often seem as if there is such a thing as “group consciousness”. For example, when a sports team plays in a beautifully coordinated way, it can seem as if each team member is guided by the same mind — we might call it ‘the soul of the team’. People who use ImplanTelepathy may become even more closely integrated with each other than “unlinked” lovers, friends, family members, teammates, or people united by common goals, experiences and interests. Some of them may find it easier to act for the “the greater common good” of a larger group. Perhaps the technology will make any individual’s feelings of joy or sorrow seem less important than the overall emotional state of the hive. One way this could happen is through a gradual increase in (1) the “bandwidth” of inter-implant communication, and (2) the level of detail being recorded by the sensors. Perhaps people will find that the signals from other people are “louder” than their own internal signals. Perhaps mass telepathy will end up being a kind of Total Perspective Vortex.
At some point, the sense of being a distinct individual may start to come apart. I can’t imagine what this would be like, but perhaps people who have had dissociative experiences might be able to speculate about it. For some people it might be an ecstatic feeling. For others it might feel like death.
ImplanTelepathy, if it ever emerges and becomes popular, would have profound effects on society. A hippie utopia in which everyone empathizes with everyone else is only one possibility. Imagine if different companies have competing, non-compatible versions of the technology. (A three-way battle between Apple-minds and Google-minds and Facebook-minds, perhaps!) There might be more rather than less social fragmentation. Political movements might become more easy to organize, and perhaps more hard to control or predict. Some people might lose control over their actions, or cede control to others. There might be neuro-slaves and neuro-masters. Or neuro-sheep and neuro-shepherds. And imagine if hackers find out how to manipulate other people’s actions. Crime, terrorism, and war might change in radical ways.
Telepathy could have very interesting effects on religion, art, and entertainment. Imagine if there are qualitatively new emotions that can only emerge through telepathic interplay. Here’s one fanciful example: telepathically linked people might head to different parts of the world and perform quirky “neuro-rituals” — dancing, contorting their bodies, eating specific things — in order to trigger experiences that would be impossible to simulate or create in isolation. And more radically, telepathy might lead to the creation of abstract sensations that are experienced at the level of the group-mind and not at the level of the individual. (“Inter-qualia” perhaps!)
All major technological changes are consciousness-altering. Every new tool at our disposal alters how we interact with the material world, and with each other. But I think that mass telepathy would represent a psycho-social revolution, because it might be the only technological breakthrough that can lead to the breakdown of individual human consciousnesses and to the creation of a networked, distributed consciousness.
(I know this is wildly speculative, but it’s great fun to think about!)