Neuroscience is one of the sciences most feeling the exponential progress of technology. With the invention of the fMRI machine, we can peer into the brains of people (and presumably animals). Each year, the tools and techniques we use to probe into the brain are doubling in their precision, finesse, and resolution (i.e., we can resolve more and more detail in less and less time), until eventually, some say between 2030-2040, we will be able to see all 100 billion neurons and their 100 trillion intra-neuronal connections firing in real-time in the human brain. As these technologies, and several others, increase our quantitive understanding of the brain, we have other technologies increasing our qualitative understanding, i.e., learning to decipher the organized chaos of the mind.
Scientists can mind-read words that a patient reads silently (note: this cannot be used yet to read what you’re thinking but only match up what your reading). And scientists have figured out a way to reconstruct movie clips that people were watching from their mind; as well as reconstruct the voices in other subjects heads. Laying the groundwork for mind-reading far in the future. (Though I do hope that Moore’s Law doesn’t allow those devices to become portable, though conceivably, even if they do, technology will be invented to keep out eavesdroppers–Norton BrainSafe? On special for only $999.99. In fact, just yesterday, an app named Silent Circle became available for iPhone and iPad that creates uncrackable peer-to-peer networks to call, message, and send files. [The app must still pass an independent security test which it will do soon, so grain of salt])
But I don’t want to get bogged down in technical jargon and scientific details. If you want to go in-depth on such subjects; chapter-four of Kurzweil’s ‘The Singularity Is Near’ is a well-to-do primer. (I imagine his new book, How To Create A Mind, will explore chapter four in even greater detail, but I haven’t read it yet.)
What I do want to explore are the things we might do with such technology once it becomes cheaper and more capable in the coming years. (We won’t have to wait until 2030 to fully take advantage of it, but it will take that long perhaps for the advancements of the brain-deciphering mentioned above.) I’d love to see this tech trained on animals. Just think of what we’d learn. We know that dolphins have a language; they have syntax and grammar, have been known to outsmart humans, and even introduce themselves to newly met dolphins. In reading Carl Sagan’s (amazing) book, Pale Blue Dot, he mentions that in flying to space, we discovered the Earth. It might be said, in talking with the first species, we will have discovered our humanity.
What will we learn talking to a chimp? Or an ape? Or our dogs and cats? Who wouldn’t want to know the width and breadth of their thoughts? How they think, why they think; do they have a capacity of choice, and if so (a safe assumption to make), how much capacity?
The story of civilisation is that of our increasing circle of compassion. That is, as our technology advanced, we became likely to view others as sub-human, and began viewing them – properly no less – as equal, thereby laying the groundwork for new moral truths, and thus, more moral societies. We are moving beyond our evolutionarily endowed tribal mentality. (Though we are not yet out of the woods but we are, oh so close.) It only seems logical to extrapolate that this circle of compassion will expand, and indeed has already, to the denizens of the entire animal kingdom. Perhaps, on that day, resistance to the theory of evolution will stop? (Though that may be wishful thinking on my part.)
What animal would you want to talk to first? And why? I’m all for the dolphin, but let me know in the comments below.