Illuminating the Mind

How an experimental mind-control technology could hasten the coming of the Singularity.

October 9, 2009

This past weekend, the 92nd Street Y, a cultural center in New York City, hosted the 2009 Singularity Summit. Maybe you’ve already heard of Ray Kurzweil and his widely cited book The Singularity is Near, but here’s the gist just in case: Kurzweil and his followers claim that the exponentially accelerating rate of technological development suggests a shift in the near future —a shift called the Singularity—during which artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence and machines will supersede humans as the dominant sentient forces on the planet. If this sounds like something out of The Matrix and more than a little kooky, don’t worry, you’re not alone. But the Singularity Summit wasn’t just an excuse for enthusiastic futurists and computer science geeks to stand up on a soapbox and spout speculation. Rather, the Summit welcomed scientists of diverse backgrounds who gave a series of presentations on current research in their chosen fields. Ed Boyden of MIT caught my attention in particular.

Boyden’s speech focused on synthetic neurobiology—a field in which researchers create technology that interacts directly with the brain—and his pioneering work on a method of specifically manipulating individual brain cells with pulses of light.

Many organisms—such as jellyfish, algae and bacteria—produce light-activated ion pumps and channels, protein structures involved in the transport of charged atoms across cell membranes. Using harmless viruses as vehicles to transport DNA coding for these pumps and channels from one organism to another, researchers can make neurons in the animals they study light sensitive as well. What’s more, using different kinds of light-activated proteins—an ion channel that excites neurons in response to blue light and an ion pump that inhibits them in response to yellow light—allows for precise control over whether or not the neurons fire.

The new technique, called optogenetics, offers scientists unprecedented opportunities to manipulate different parts of the brain and nervous system. It was readily adopted and successfully used to study neural processes in a range of animal models, from zebra fish to primates. So what does any of this have to do with the Singularity? Well, during his presentation at the Summit, Boyden described recent attempts to make fiber optic implants for the human brain that could directly stimulate or inhibit neurons with tiny beams of light. Of course, for such a device to work, researchers would first need to genetically engineer human brain cells to be light activated. Figuring out how to do this safely and securing the approval for the necessary studies are obstacles Boyden did not address.

Assuming these difficulties are overcome in the future, let’s consider the implications: implants that precisely control how and when our brain cells are firing? Sure, there’s great therapeutic potential here—especially for disorders that involve abnormal firing patterns, such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease—but there’s also something a bit alarming. What Boyden described is similar to an existing therapeutic technology called deep brain stimulation (DBS) in which an implanted brain pacemaker regulates specific areas of brain cells. However, there’s a crucial difference: present-day DBS uses electrical stimulation, which is not nearly as accurate as light stimulation. I can’t help but imagine how such precise control of individual neurons could turn into the kind of mind control science fiction has long warned us against. Fiber optics has already been used to stimulate the brain in mice, as this little fellow demonstrates: when the light goes on, he involuntarily runs in circles.

If Kurzweil is right—and computers will soon be smarter than us—I’m sure they’ll take full advantage of any mind-controlling technology at their disposal. And who knows: maybe the Singularity already happened and we’re nothing more than a bunch of brains in vats, lapping up the rays of light that power our dream reality—all for the amusement of our supercomputer overlords.

About the Author

Ferris Jabr

Ferris Jabr has a Bachelors of Science from Tufts University and an MA in journalism from New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrisjabr.


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