by Ian Morris
Professor Of Classics And History
6 February 2012
Of all the tall tales in the science-fiction TV series Star Trek,
what impressed me most when I was a little boy was the Vulcan mind
Laying his hands on the head of a human (or, in one of the films, a
humpback whale), Mr Spock could, for a moment, dissolve the distance
between two living things. Each experienced everything the other
felt, thought, knew and saw.
Now it seems scientists are about to make the Vulcan mind meld a
reality - and go far beyond it.
Ten years ago, the US National Science Foundation predicted
‘network-enhanced telepathy’ - sending thoughts over the internet -
would be practical by the 2020s.
Man and machine
Computers could soon
be hardwired into
the human brain and unlock amazing power.
And thanks to neuroscientists at the
University of California, we seem to be on schedule.
Last September, they asked volunteers to watch Hollywood film
trailers and then reconstructed the clips by scanning their
subjects’ brain activity.
‘We’re opening a window into the
movies in our minds,’ Professor Jack Gallant announced.
Last week, the scientists boldly went
They charted the electrical activity in the brains of
volunteers who were listening to human speech and then they fed the
results into computers which translated the signals back into
The technique remains crude, and has so far made out only five
distinct words, but humanity has crossed a threshold.
We can now read people’s minds.
On Star Trek, the Vulcan mind meld
had medical benefits, curing a nasty imaginary infection called Pa’nar syndrome.
Harnessing the power
of the mind was a favorite of science fiction,
including Star Trek's
Vulcan mind meld
But the new breakthroughs promise to
deliver much greater - and real - benefits.
No longer need strokes and neurodegenerative diseases rob people of
speech because we can turn their brainwaves directly into words. But
this is only the beginning. Neuroscientists are going to make the
mind meld look like child’s play. Mankind is merging with its
The process began centuries ago with simple devices such as
eyeglasses and ear trumpets that could dramatically improve human
lives. Then came better machines, such as hearing aids; and then
machines that could save lives, including pacemakers and dialysis
By the second decade of the 21st Century, we have become
used to organs grown in laboratories, genetic surgery and designer
In 2002, medical researchers used enzymes and DNA to build the first
molecular computers, and in 2004 improved versions were being
injected into people’s veins to fight cancer.
By 2020 we may be able to put even cleverer nano-computers into our
brains to speed up synaptic links, give ourselves perfect memory and
perhaps cure dementia.
But inserting technology into human brains is not the only thing
going on. Some scientists also want to insert human brains into
Since the Sixties, computer chips have been doubling their speed and
halving their cost every 18 months or so.
If the trend continues, the inventor and predictor
has pointed out that by 2029 we will have computers powerful enough
to run programs reproducing the 10,000 trillion electrical signals
that flash around your skull every second.
They will also have enough memory to store the ten trillion
recollections that make you who you are.
And they will also be powerful enough to
scan, neuron by neuron, every contour and wrinkle of your brain.
What this means is that if the trends of the past 50 years continue,
in 17 years’ time we will be able to upload an electronic replica of
your mind on to a machine.
There will be two of you - one a flesh-and-blood animal, the other
inside a computer’s circuits.
And if the trends hold fast beyond that, Kurzweil adds, by 2045 we
will have a computer that is powerful enough to host every one of
the eight billion minds on Earth.
Carbon and silicon-based intelligence will merge to form a single
Kurzweil calls this ‘The
Singularity’, a moment when,
‘the pace of technological
change will be so rapid, its impact so deep... that technology
appears to be expanding at infinite speed’.
At that point, we will have left the Vulcan mind meld far behind.
But even this may not be the end of the story.
Much of the research behind last week’s breakthrough in brain
science was funded not by universities but by
DARPA, the US Defence
Advanced Research Projects Agency.
It was DARPA that brought us the internet (then called the
in the Seventies, and DARPA’s Brain Interface Project was a pioneer
in molecular computing.
More recently, DARPA’s
Talk Program has been exploring
mind-reading technology with devices that can pick up the electrical
signals inside soldiers’ brains and send them over the internet.
With these implants, entire armies will be able to talk without
radios. Orders will leap instantly into soldiers’ heads and
commanders’ wishes will become the wishes of their men.
Hitler would have loved it.
The huge potential
unlocked by the technology
prospects if it were to be used by evil dictators like Adolf Hitler
Some of the clearest thinking about the
new technologies has been done in the world’s departments of defence,
and the conclusions the soldiers draw are alarming.
For example, US Army Colonel Thomas Adams thinks that military
technology is already moving beyond what he calls ‘human space’, as
robotic weapons become,
‘too fast, too small, too numerous,
and... create an environment too complex for humans to direct’.
Technology, Col Adams suspects, is,
‘rapidly taking us to a place where
we may not want to go, but probably are unable to avoid’.
As goes war, so, perhaps, goes
The merging of mankind and its machines that Kurzweil predicts for the mid-21st Century may, in fact,
turn out just to be a lay-by on the way to a very different
Thing of the past
revolutionize the way
The defence industry
computer technology into the brain of soldiers
Later in the century, what we condescendingly call ‘artificial’
intelligence might replace us humans just as thoroughly as we humans
once replaced all our evolutionary ancestors.
All this will come to pass... unless, of course, it doesn’t.
the trends Kurzweil and Col Adams identify will slow down, or even
And maybe the critics who mockingly call the Singularity ‘the
Rapture for Nerds’ will be proved right.
But on the other hand, maybe the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard
Smalley is closer to the truth when he points out: ‘When a scientist
says something is possible, they’re probably underestimating how
long it will take.
But if they say it’s impossible, they’re probably wrong.’
The University of California’s neuroscientists have taken us one
more step towards a final frontier far beyond anything dreamed of in