Imagine a world where the Internet never cut out. No, I don't just mean a world where Comcast customer service doesn't blow, I mean a world where you literally could not turn the web off if you wanted too. Now imagine the computational power of that interweb is so great you can immerse yourself in any virtual experience you want, and it will seem just as real as our world. A world in which you have instantaneous access to all human knowledge and experience. There's just one catch. In order for it to work, you've gotta be okay billions of microscopic robots crawling over the surface of your brain.
To dispel the most obvious concern: no, you would not feel them crawling up and down your cerebrum. They're nanobots, meaning they're smaller than bacteria, which, by the by, you are absolutely infested with (bacterial cells outnumber human cells in our bodies roughly 10:1). But you would have to accept their existence if you wanted to experience this hyper-augmented reality. You'd also have to get comfortable with the knowledge that anyone could access you, and see what you're doing, at any time.
This is the world Rudy Rucker envisions in his cyberpunk-inspired novel, Postsingular. It's sort of doppelganger to The Matrix: rather than giant sentient machines enslaving us and forcing us to participate in their endless 1999 charade, microscopic smartbots create a virtual playground that we can tap in and out of at will. In Postsingular, computer scientists engineer a race of quantum-computing nanomachines known as Orphids. Following their somewhat misguided release into the wild, the Orphids quickly proliferate, coat the planet, and use their cloud intelligence to create a virtual world that merges seamlessly with our own. Suddenly, everyone is able to see everyone else all the time, simply by thinking. New celebrities emerge overnight and relationships shatter as everyone's deepest secrets are laid bare to the world.
I'll admit the notion of a nanonet that services our brain's every desire sounds like far fetched speculative fiction at best. But after doing a bit of research on the relevant technology, I'm not so sure anymore. And given even the outside chance of a Postsingular future, I think we need to start pondering whether OrphidNet technology would be a good thing for the human race and the planet.
Brain computer interfaces (BCIs), devices that allow the human brain to connect directly with a computer, have been in development for over forty years. Your typical BCI consists of a hardware component- a headset with sensors that rest on your scalp and monitor brain activity- and software that processes brain activity and attempts to work out what it is you're thinking or doing. Most R&D to date has been in the field of neuroprosthetics: BCIs that can restore damaged hearing, sight and movement. The pace of discovery has been accelerating in the last ten years. Recent science-fiction-like advances, including thought-controlled bionic arms and the direct visualization and reconstruction of human thoughts have brought BCI technology into the public spotlight. Perhaps even more promising for those of us interested in the development of full-immersion virtual reality is the adoption of BCI technology by the videogame industry. Pioneering game companies like Emotiv are creating BCI's that can sense a player's mood and adjust the game environment and music accordingly. The second ever NeruoGaming con, to be held in San Fransisco this May, will showcase over fifty companies designing the most cutting edge gaming-with-your-mind technologies.
However, an important barrier has yet to be crossed for BCI technology to produce true virtual reality: bi-directionality. To date, BCI R&D has focused on extracting information from the human brain and processing that information through software. To achieve Rucker's vision of being able to watch one's neighbors during their most private moments, we would need computers that could not only read information from our brains, but send information to us.
To this end, nanobots may indeed be the way forward. Similarly to BCI technology, nanorobotics R&D is being driven by the biomedical industry. In biomedicine, nanotechnology brings with it the exciting prospect of finding ways to better our own biology- making us into more perfect machines, so to speak. For instance, scientists are working on an artificial cell that binds and releases oxygen several hundred times more efficiently than human red blood cells. If 10% of your red blood cells were replaced with these bots, you could do an Olympic sprint without taking a breath. Or survive for hours underwater. Nanobots may one day circle our blood stream, scrubbing cholesterol out of our arteries and fighting cancer. Could nanobots designed to interact with our neurons hold similar promise? Might they allow us to vastly increase our own computational powers, making us all into smarter versions of ourselves?
If you're mathematically inclined, you may appreciate Ray Kurzweil's argument that it's only a matter of time before nanobot-neuron interfaces are a reality. Examining exponential growth patterns in biological and technological evolution, Kurzweil predicts that by the late 2020's nanomachines will be fully integrated with the human nervous system. These bots will interact with our neurons on a much finer scale than gaming headsets ever will; shutting down signals coming from our real senses and replacing them with signals from the virtual environment. Moreover, nanobots will allow us to outsource our thoughts and computations to the nanonet, freeing us from the processing limitations of our own biology.
But would this be good for the world?
If Kurzweil's exponential-growth based predictions of technological progress are correct, within less than a generation the human race may be able to get an OrphidNet up and running. Is this good thing? The potential ecological benefits are numerous. Virtual reality would almost certainly lead to a decline in consumerism- if we can have any experience we want from the comfort of our couch, why jet off to Maui or buy a new SUV? Moreover, the very same nanomachines that inhabit our brains may be able to power our lives. The development of high-efficiency nano-sized fuel cells is well underway. Nanotechnology is rapidly making its way into solar panel design. Nanobots that provide both an alternative to consumption-oriented lifestyles and a cheap renewable energy source would most certainly be a win-win for the planet.
On the human side, however, there are some very scary dangers. In Postsingular, aggregate sentience quickly emerges from the nanoswarm. Were such an intelligence to emerge, it may well decide it doesn't like us very much. It may begin hacking our thoughts and making us harm ourselves. While this notion probably seems far-fetched, the threat of BCI technology being used to hack the human brain is one the US military is already taking seriously. Less maliciously, the nanobots may evolve into a more virus-like version of themselves and begin strip-mining our bodies for raw materials like iron, zinc and copper. Rucker envisions a problem of this nature playing out on a global scale: in Postsingular, the first generation of nanobots proliferates so rapidly it consumes all matter on Earth within several days. Whoopsie.
Finally, there is the more parochial danger of the human race slipping into hedonistic degeneracy. We become glued to our couches, immersed so deeply in our virtual fantasies that we start to forget our own basic needs. We stop eating, sleeping, and ultimately, breathing. In a sense, this problem does circle back to The Matrix, after all: if the virtual experience becomes too good, would we ever want to leave it?
Given the threats and promises held by a nanobot-infested future, what's a person to think about all this? I certainly don't have an answer. The stakes may be very different in the future. We may have to weigh the risk of unleashing the nanobots against other risks- a global energy crisis, for instance.
Alternatively, you may subscribe to the belief that we're all just part of a massive computer simulation, in which case you really needn't worry about any of this at all.