Sensory Substitution: What Are We Waiting For?

Instead of trying to build "intelligent machines", why not use all the new information about how the brain works, to augment our senses?

I just started reading On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins (creator of the PalmPilot -- andGraffiti if you can remember that).

The book deals with "intelligence": what it is, how it's produced, how to emulate it. It argues, rightfully, that it doesn't make sense to want to make "intelligent" machines without first understanding what "intelligence" actually is.

The brain (the neocortex) is a pattern-analysis machine: it receives patterns from inputs and makes sense of them. But it's entirely versatile: the cortex is not in any way specialized at birth; it becomes specialized because of the way it's wired.

For instance, the region of the brain that receives input from the optical nerves becomes in time an expert at dealing with optical patterns; but if you rewire a rat's nerves at birth, so that vision information arrives in the part of the brain usually used for auditory input, it works just as well.

Reparing damaged senses

This flexibility is being used today to help people with damaged senses: for example, there are machines that let blind people see with their tongues.

But why stop at prosthetics? Why only try to repair / duplicate our existing "senses" (of which, of course, there are many many more than just five)? Instead of sensory substitution, why not start talking of sensory augmentation?

Adding new senses

Wouldn't it be fantastic to have sonar vision (like bats, or dolphins), even if you're not blind? Or for pilots, to feel which way is down?

You wouldn't need to wear those heavy night-vision goggles: just a device somewhere in your body that sends signals (patterns) to your brain through a simple interface; and you wouldn't even need to learn how to use it, because the brain does the pattern-analysis by itself; just send it the patterns and it'll take it from there.

As for the interface, I personally wouldn't mind having a multi-purpose interface built right into my skull, but in the meantime anything will do, really. There are devices that can give people a new sense of orientation by sending compass information to the waist through a vibrating belt.

None of this is new; I'm just wondering what's keeping it to go mainstream -- why we continue to try to build "intelligent assistants" such as SIRI (a dumb secretary) when we could give ourselves superpowers.

Mon, 31 Oct 2011 • permalink