In the future, words and images won’t be enough. More authentic experiences will include taste, touch, and smell, maybe even directly shared thoughts, piped right into your brain. If you’ve read this blog before, you may have heard of the concept of deep dive virtual reality, which is virtual reality like the kind you see in the Matrix. Brain-machine interfaces, also called BMIs, brain-computer interfaces, or direct neural interfaces, can and probably will make deep dive VR a reality someday.
Advanced brain-machine interfaces are in many ways a staple of science fiction. That cyborg with the cool mechanical hand? They can use it like a biological hand because it’s wired into their nervous system, a permanent form of BMI. (We’re working on making this possible right now.) What about the telepathy, or empathy? Reality doesn’t support a mystic version, but you can get the same effect with BMIs, and we’re developing the technology right now. Surfing the web with your brain? BMIs again. What about tech that lets you download knowledge, or remember things perfectly? You can probably guess that’s a possibility with BMIs too, and we’re working on the memory thing already.
Basically, brain-machine interfaces could potentially upgrade just about anything that involves the human brain. Even one of these applications coming to fruition would have a staggeringly huge effect on society, never mind if we manage all of them. Let’s take a moment to imagine the possibilities: a world where you wake up exactly on time feeling perfectly rested, with no alarm, because your sleep cycle was set just right. You don’t need coffee, because you’re already alert and aware thanks to your implants. On the way to work you see a gorgeous double-rainbow, and with just a thought the memory is preserved forever – and even sent to your spouse to cheer them up. You don’t have any trouble navigating to the conference center, even though you’ve never been there before, because you have perfect spatial awareness of where the address should be on a map and how to get there. After you give your talk, you nip into VR with only a thought, no bulky goggles, to watch your kid’s school play, and they’re absolutely killing the role of Marie Antoinette – they’re kitted out in full period costume, with no cost or discomfort from wearing a heavy, bulky dress. Then to relax, it’s back into VR again for the full beach experience, right down to the feeling of the waves lapping against your feet. You send a quick thought to your spouse telling them how much you love them, and they can feel your sincerity. Then it’s off to bed, where you can be certain you won’t have any nightmares, because your implant is keeping track of your emotions and will calm you down.
So yes, this is a pretty wild scenario to contemplate. Depending on how you feel about technology, surveillance, and the sanctity of the mind, it may even seem pretty scary. That’s an okay reaction to have! The far future, even just a vague one that seems plausible, is a very weird place, and thinking about it too long can be uncomfortable. Nevertheless, people are working to make that version of the world a reality, and it’s better to be prepared, even if only to say “nope, I’m not letting them put anything in my head!” You get to choose what your future will look like, and you can make a better choice if you spend time thinking about these possibilities ahead of time.
So take a minute to imagine a world with BMIs, and what you’d be comfortable with, and what you wouldn’t. Think about how this could make the world better, and how people could act to avoid having it make things worse. Forewarned is forearmed. If you’re curious about a more in-depth fictional take on this subject, backed by real-world science, I heartily recommend the award-winning Nexus book series, by Ramez Naam, a computer scientist and respected futurist.