Innovation Future Specialist
Virtual reality (VR) is already here, but how good will it get? Continued from Part 1 to futuristic technology that will blow your mind!
» The VR suit to give you the full body experience
» Magnetic stimulation of the brain
» Silent voice command system
» Nano-wired brains
» Playing God with your mind in a computer
» Exploring anywhere on Earth
» Exploring remote regions in space
» Ethics of brain research
» At what cost?
Perhaps some gamers and hackers [developers] will want to push the limits and make the VR experience as realistic as possible. We can speculate at what options they might adopt over the next 40 years or so...
Imagine a tight suit, like the wet suit a diver wears. It could contain a set of micro-actuators, heating and cooling elements, and dynamic texture simulating material to provide a wide range of realistic simulations across the body, such as the effect of walking bare foot on grass (for example). In addition, there would be the complementary headset to provide audio, 3D video, smells and tastes.
Devices already exist that you place on your head and use thought to control a computer, robot arm, wheel-chair, or car. These are relatively crude at the moment and require a lot of (thinking) effort on the part of the user, but they might get a lot better.
There is a huge amount of research into the function and structure of the brain, and detailed maps of the human brain are being built up. Some research has also allowed MRI scanners and computers to predict what a person is thinking (to a very limited degree, so far), and to show the (roughly portrayed) images that a person is seeing in their mind! So we can probably expect headsets in the future that can tell what you are thinking (to an extent).
A sensor can be placed on the neck, and just by thinking of talking (without making a noise) a system can determine what the words are that you said! This could become a useful silent voice command system.
But could we directly stimulate thoughts in the brain? Well there is a device (a transcranial magnetic stimulator) used in research that is placed on the head and it generates a changing magnetic field that generates a small electric current in a region of the brain.
If a superior version of this device could be created that was able to focus the stimulation on just a few neurons (or one) then this would probably allow direct stimulation of the brain so that it perceives any sensation: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell; or even to retrieve a memory or trigger a thought!
This would require mapping of the brain by an advanced (MRI) system and accurate positional calibration with the stimulator - perhaps one device would perform both functions, as MRI scanners use strong magnetic fields. No such prototype currently exists, but never say never as innovation often proves the experts wrong (see Benefits: Fantastic Achievements of the Last 100 Years). This would be the only device you would need for a completely realistic experience.
Some go even further and suggest that nano-bots ["robots" smaller than one thousandth of a millimetre!] are released into the brain. Nano-bots would attach to neurons to sense signals [thoughts] in the brain; and to stimulate neurons to create sensations (sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and sense of touch), recall memories, and trigger thoughts!
Bad and ugly innovations are addressed in the innovation training courses as part of the good, bad and ugly innovation module.
Clearly this represents a huge technological challenge, and there are huge ethical and medical questions that need to be asked and debated. Even if it does become technically possible, it could become an ugly innovation: unforeseen medical and mental health problems, zombie states, psychosis, addiction, loss of purpose and motivation, and irreversible damage. It could become a bad innovation that is abused by nation states or corrupt corporations: thought police, brain-washing, thought control, and much worse. The risks are so high that we should ask: are the benefits really worth the risk?
Given that the computer would be connected to the Internet, it would be possible for a mind to control a remote robot and experience exploration of the real world, whether that be walking on land, climbing into the crater of an active volcano, swimming under-water, or flying through the air.
Given the exponential rate at which computing power is progressing, within this century a brain sized computer is likely to have more capability than a human brain. So it would be possible to download a mind into a (humanoid) robot for space exploration to a distant planet. This approach would have to be used for space exploration because the time delay (even at the speed of light) is too much for remote exploration - the mind needs to be on the planet.
Detailed maps of the human brain are already being developed, and some even aim to map every connection between neurons, and there are trillions of connections! To do so, requires slicing up the brain - so it is not a candidate methodology for opt-in then opt-out VR games. However, some people are seriously suggesting that within this century such an approach could be used to transfer a person (or at least their mind) into a computer generated world. For such a person that computer world would not be a virtual reality; for them it would be reality!
The computer would be responsible for providing the correct signals into the "brain" to represent all of the senses (including sensations from the internal functions of the body, which we are less aware of). The computer would render the environment and make it dynamcally respond to the outputs of the "brain" (e.g. signals to turn the head would change the image received by the mind). This sounds rather risky and extreme to simulate reality, but such a simulation can go much further than reality!
When a complete mind is downloaded into a computer simulation in this way, that person [mind] has the opportunity to defy the laws of physics and to become a God like entity within that simulated reality! It would be possible to change the environment just by thought. The ocean could float above and be pink, while the clouds could be below and coloured green. Anything would be possible! You could even clone your mind, to perform multiple tasks and explore multiple locations (both simulated and real).
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However, those God like powers would come with the same risks as the nano-wired brain described above. In fact, in this scenario you are completely reliant on the owners of the computer that runs the simulation, holds your mind and memories, and runs your thoughts and feelings. Could you ever trust all of this (everything that is you, at the most personal level) to a complete stranger?
Brain research is very important, but we need stronger ethics in this area than in any other area of medical research.
Prevention of accidental Hell: Currently donated brains are being sliced and scanned into computers, but we must be explicit that a complete brain (or even significantly large parts) must not be simulated (down to the level of neurons and their billions of connections) without the prior understanding and approval of the doner, and adherence to very strict ethical guidelines!
Why? Because in the early days we will not understand how a brain works at this intricate level and we do not understand the potentially traumic consequences of re-animating a "brain" that has no body and no sensory input! What would it feel like to become conscious while having no body, no lungs to breathe, and no heartbeat!? We must also be careful to ensure that the simulated inputs (of a virtual body and environment) are safe and do not induce trauma, damage mental health, or destroy a state of wellbeing. However, in these very early days of research [that we are now entering] we do not know how we can guarantee the welfare of the donated brains, when they are in a simulated environment. This is a worrying chicken and egg scenario, and there should be great concern that the inevitable trial and error research does not accidentally put those donated brains [minds] into the tourments of Hell for the sake of research. Perhaps the long overdue ethical debate on this will conclude that such detailed simulations should never take place, because we cannot guarantee the welfare of the doner.
Would a perfect VR environment be perfect? See Reality: The remains of a perfect simulation?