Bionic Brain, Free Will, Emergence and Software Engineering

Ok, that is an ambitious title!!

I heard on Boston’s WBUR today a program on the bionic brain. It was a fantastic program. The guest talked about early experiments on humans, mouse and monkeys whose brains were connected to a computer using a brain-computer interface with the goal of controlling a computation device using just their thoughts (For more details checkout the following Wikipedia entry). This technology is straight out a sci-fi movie. As far as I know it has been around for around 10-15 years now.

There are already experiments where humans are able to control robotic arms using their thoughts through the brain-computer interface. Another experiment enhanced a monkey with such an interface. In very short period of time the monkey learnt how to control the cursor in a computer simply using its thoughts.

The implication of this technology are many. On one end of the spectrum it can lead to a much better quality of life for people who are paralyzed. They can now control their environment using simply their thoughts, and an attached computer/robot. On the other end, we may end up creating a class of humans who are bionic, much smarter than the rest and consequently exercise overwhelming power over the rest of humanity (Many movies have already explored this possibility).

Finally, it leads me to a new definition of software and many questions about software reliability. Traditionally we have thought of software as code residing in the memory of a computer. However, with the bionic brain we may need to expand the definition of software to include “code in your brain”. How do we engineer the code in brain-computer interface chips such that

1) It efficiently translates thoughts into computer commands

2) Bugs in the code don’t cause serious harm to the individual

3) What are the new meanings of terms such as security, reliability, privacy and robustness in this context?

4) What techniques can be used to certify the correctness of such software? Will traditional formal methods or testing or program analysis suffice or do we need newer techniques?

5) How can this software be used to influence free will (assuming we have free will)? In fact, we don’t have a good conception of free will today. It gets even more complicated in this context.

6) I feel that human thought or consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. How does this emergent phenomenon change in the presence of piece of software that can influence the brain in a very direct way? What is consciousness anyways?

7) How is the potential control exercised by software on our minds any different from control that humans exercise over each other?

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About Vijay Ganesh

https://ece.uwaterloo.ca/~vganesh
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