Why am I confident that brain-Internet interfaces will become a reality? Because it’s not really such a vast leap from here to a thought-activated Google search: these human-tested technologies already give us the components that we would need to directly connect the Internet to a person’s brain. And because there are both medical and military pulls on related technologies. On the medical side, besides the urgency of providing physical and mental prostheses to patients with severe injuries, baby boomers are getting older, and their nervous systems are starting to fall apart. There will be increased demand for patching up deteriorating nervous subsystems-and baby boomers have always gotten what they demand. At minimum, this will drive the development of direct visual interfaces that by 2010 will help blind people as much as today’s cochlear implants help deaf people.And on the military side, direct neural control of complex machines is a long-term goal. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a brain-machine interface program aimed at creating next-generation wireless interfaces between neural systems and, initially, prosthetics and other biomedical devices.
Just as the modern laptop was inconceivable when the standard computer interface was the punch card, it’s hard to imagine how a brain-Internet interface will feel. As brain-imaging technologies continue their rapid advance, we will get a better understanding of where in the brain to insert signals so that they will be meaningful-just as the control signals for the rats were inserted into neurons normally triggered by whiskers.
We still need broad advances, of course. We need algorithms that can track the behavior of brain cells as they adapt to the interface, and we’ll need better understanding of brain regions that serve as centers of meaning. But we’ll get there. And when we do, we won’t “see” an image similar to today’s Web pages. Rather, the information contained in a Web server will make us feel as though “Ritchie Valens” just popped into our heads.