Looking at the past, we wonder if there were any major changes. And one thing that comes to mind: the smartphones. These devices have changed a lot of things in people’s lives and it has become an essential part of their daily life. Smartphones have changed the way people communicate and socialize. People can stay in touch with each other wherever they go.
They have also changed the way people get information. Since they are mobile, you can carry them everywhere and access all kinds of information. To fully understand how they can evolve, you have to look at the past.
A Brief History of Smartphones
The ancestor of all phones a smartphone is probably the Bell phone. It was in June 1876 that Graham Bell launched his invention, the telephone. The first one. Or maybe the first inventor of the telephone is Antonio Meucci. Anyway...
The “mobile phone” appeared in the general public in the 1990s, but its origin dates back to the 1940s, with the discovery of radio technology. However, it was not until 1973 that the inventor of the cell phone, Dr. Martin Cooper, made his first call through this channel.
And only 10 years later, that same doctor presented a marketable version of the first mobile phone. Commercial use began in Japan in 1979 with the first generation of telephones (1G). And in 1983, the first network was launched in Chicago in the United States.
The evolution of battery technology has made it possible to increase the autonomy of this type of device and thus reduce their size. Miniaturization which, as we will see later, will come to an abrupt end. The devices are miniaturized, they gain in autonomy.
Smartphones, and especially the famous iPhone 1 (2007) from the Apple company, are the quintessential example of disruptive technologies that have disrupted the miniaturization of mobile phones and reversed the trend in the entire mobile market.
The iPhone with its 3.5-inch screen (offering a resolution of 480 by 320 pixels) is the pioneer of the multipoint touch interface which heralded the generalization of this type of device on the market. These products have therefore shifted established patterns in the markets and, in many cases, forcing existing products and competitors to readjust.
So, the smartphone of 2030 will be thinner, have a larger surface right? Will it be possible to fold it like a sheet of paper, unbreakable and ultra-light?
The new paradigm
Extrapolating past trends into the future, it is thinking about the evolution in very linear ways. We should expect cycles and disruptions in technologies. These cycles are called technological revolutions.
Carlota Perez, author of Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages, gives a perspective of these cycles originally.
“A technological revolution can be defined as a powerful and highly visible cluster of new and dynamic technologies, products and industries, capable of bringing about an upheaval in the whole fabric of the economy and of propel- ling a long- term upsurge of development. It is a strongly interrelated constellation of technical innovations, generally including an important all-pervasive low- cost input, often a source of energy, sometimes a crucial material, plus significant new products and processes and a new infrastructure.” — Carlota Perez
Like Schumpeter, Carlota Perez believes that the early upsurge of new technology is a period of explosive growth, leading to great turbulence and uncertainty in the economy.
We have been involved in these deep processes of technological revolutions. These transformations are turbulent and have historically lasted between 20 and 30 years.
All fields face technology disruptions, and often the leaders of one technology can disappear altogether when the next technology appears. Take video storage, the leader of VHS tapes and their players were JVC, which disappeared when CD was born, replaced by DVD, then replaced by blu-ray... and so on.
For mobile technologies, we have had the analog telephone, replaced by the digital mobile telephone of which Nokia was the leader, replaced after 15 years by the smartphone whose technological breakthrough was the ‘touch screen’ screen, social network applications, and internet connection.
The changes we have had since, in the screen, thickness, camera, and other 4G or 5G are developments and not a technological breakthrough. Nokia is gone and Apple and Samsung dominate this market. The next technological breakthrough for mobile phones should arrive very quickly.
Today we use smartphones, smartwatches, tablets to fetch information and try to sort out what is relevant to us and what is not. Perhaps the next smartphone will take advantage of 5G, AI to bring us less and more relevant data, with strong development of voice assistants. Consume less information, but better, a godsend for new technology, and our brains too often saturated with raw data.
A Brain Chip As Revolution
In my opinion, the future will probably be to no longer have a smartphone. In this case, a direct connection with our “neural network” is a realistic option.
On 28 August, Elon Musk unveiled his new futuristic project. As usual, he surprised everyone. The successful entrepreneur, boss of Tesla and Space X, began his presentation with an “It’s gonna blow your mind”.
His startup Neuralink does not sell a commercial product. You can’t buy it at the moment. It just an experiment. This brain implant is envisioned to cure anything (paraplegia, quadriplegia, insomnia, hearing loss, memory loss, addiction, depression, blindness, etc).
Poor Gertrude, a sow who had asked nothing of anyone, found herself in the role of the guinea pig on duty. A chip implanted in the skull, Elon Musk sends it in prime time in front of millions of spectators. She walks around and waves the sensors, obviously without the poor beast realizing what is going on. Without knowing it, she may be participating in planning for the end of the human species as we have always known it. Even though she has a chip in her brain, Gertrude remains a sow, one of the most intelligent animals, but which has its limits. The spectacle is sad, depending on the sensitivity one has for the animal cause.
Is Neuralink a technological revolution? Musk has talked talking about what other neuroscientists have already designed, along with the pros and cons of their systems. A way to democratize the subject a little in the eyes of the general public, in an area that has remained mysterious for too long. So, in terms of breakthroughs, Neuralink is nothing new. There are already existing brain implants that connect to the brain through electrodes, like BrainGate. Many years ago, the researchers of the University of Pittsburgh reported that a monkey can control a robotic arm directly by its own brain signals. And humans can control cyborg turtles with their minds.
Arnav Kapur, a scientist at MIT Media Lab, invented the machine called Alter Ego which allows communication between the brain and a computer. It translates brain speech impulse into words without vocalization.
So, the goal of Neuralink is trying to build a system with at least two orders of magnitude more communication channels than current clinically-approved solutions. A solution to aggregate all these innovations and scientific studies into one single chip through cutting edge engineering. One more step towards the brain-machine interface.
After the small chip is placed behind the ear, the new brain-machine interface will take place in a 23 mm by 8 mm circular device inserted directly under the skull. And the charging method is strangely similar to a new generation smartphone. Energy recovery will actually be done by induction.
The brain chip can’t write or store the neural impulses. The memory can’t be downloaded and restored through Neuralink. Neurons are microscopic and the electrodes are not. Electrodes are implanted only on a shallow layer of the skull. The Neuralink system just tries to transmit and translate information using electric impulses from our brain. Neuralink can’t do much right now, and can’t treat a lot of the diseases that Musk promises.
A Futuristic Vision
In the demo, Elon Musk said: “I think long-term you can restore someone full-body motion.” This implanted chip can transmit information on the muscle activity of the person wearing it. The chip knows how to spot the location of muscles as soon as they move. Musk, therefore, sees it as useful for paralyzed people, who might find the use of walking again.
Who to go against such hope? Nobody of course, especially if it is Gertrude who demonstrates. In contrast, when Elon Musk grins his chip as the future of the human brain with never-before-seen intelligence and power, “an extraordinary breakthrough for the human species”.
A brain implant that can connect any person’s mind to a cloud to facilitate super- intelligence in human beings? Treating paralysis with electrodes and pulses from a chip in the brain is one thing, implanting a virtual brain capable of making decisions and thinking for a human is another. Elon Musk’s idea is to deny the very essence of the human. For someone who calls himself a humanist, it is difficult to understand. The utopia of a superhuman, infallible, robotic, and controllable. But it seems longer so distant.
In fact, I think that the Japanese cyberpunk culture took a step ahead by staging from the 90s characters who were on the edge of the human and the robotics and who were confronted with metaphysical questions on their identity.
In 1995, Ghost in the Shell, an anime cyberpunk film directed by Mamoru Oshii and based on the manga of the same name by the great master mangaka Masamune Shirow, in which Puppet Master, a cybercriminal, takes control of a human’s mind (“ghost”) through the Digital Network (the evolution of the Internet in the fiction).
So, with Neuralink, will it be possible to hack our brain like in the Ghost in the Shell? No, “cyberbrain hijacking” is not feasible and it won’t be possible for a long time.
The images of Gertrude with her chip implanted in her brain may be the beginnings of a new dehumanized and controlled human. I feel like the Internet revolution has shown humanity that it can be fully contained on networks, which implies that there is a limit to human nature, and in a way, we are looking for that limit, as described in the anime film.
But Ghost in the Shell depicted another interesting parallel topic, characters with cyberbrains could communicate with each other without actually speaking or typing. Instead, they had some sort of machine-aided “telepathy” where one person could hear the other’s voice and vice-versa without needing any kind of microphone. What if is a combination of implants or electronics we can use to reproduce this effect?
Direct Neural Interfaces (DNI) are exactly that. The communication through the chips of two brains is conceivable with Neuralink. Communication without saying a word is not any more science fiction.
On 28 September, in a Sway podcast, production of New York Times Opinion, wide- ranging interview with Elon Musk on Neuralink and the future of brain chip implants, “It’s like a Fitbit in your skull”, Musk said. “We are already cyborgs”.
So, we are already a cyborg. In the sense that you have your computers and your phones, and your apps on your phone, and stuff like that, and your social media or whatever. It’s like you’re already part electronic if you think about it. — Elon Musk
In a sense, that’s not totally false. Smartphones and mobile technologies are a new paradigm inseparable from a very large majority of individuals, even to the point of modifying our social relations and our organization of time. Our world is connected to mobile devices which are so many extensions of our human bodies, a smartphone as externalized memory, our GPS watch which acts as a sense of direction...
“We’re a 300 baud modem. Very slowly outputting information into our phone or maybe a little bit faster into a computer if you’re using 10 fingers,” he said. If you do not have the necessary tools to navigate the information area, it will be difficult to consult, such as data flow on the history of mankind.
The priority of the Neuralink team is improving the “bandwidth of our communication”. It is being a connection between the brain and the machines can allow human to integrate and control AI like the impressive GPT-3 through pure mental commands and increase our human capacity much more than smartphones. Team members communicating remotely, in real-time, would be a godsend for business communication. In remote working, we could write down important things during a meeting and send an email with our meeting report right away, or use GPT-3 to help us generate when brainstorming. Neuralink team has developed a custom chip that is better able to read, clean up, and amplify signals from the brain. But the project is still at an early stage.
Elon Musk is likely one of the most controversial entrepreneurs. Because when Musk has an idea, he goes to the end. Who hasn’t laughed at him when he said ten years ago that he would take tourists into space, that we would drive an electric car, and that the man on Mars was not a utopia? Nobody dares to laugh anymore.
But one thing is certain, he has demonstrated with Tesla and SpaceX that he wants to build an impactful vision of the future. Obviously, there are a large number of questions including ethics, security, privacy, legal issues, ads spamming...
At the moment, Neuralink is not a commercial product. At least, not yet. It is a scientific and medical experiment. Neuralink’s initial goal is to focus on medical applications to help those afflicted by neurological disorders and degenerative brain conditions. Science takes time and requires efforts and collaboration. It must overcome a lot of challenges. Neuralink is a promise. It is a great bet on the future.
By extrapolating the past, we can try to guess what kind of smartphones we will have in the future.
By taking into account the cycles of technological revolutions, we can imagine new alternatives and disruptions. The future will probably be to no longer have a smartphone.
The brain chip and Neuralink is one of these potential alternatives to replace smartphones. Neuralink is a scientific experiment trying to aggregate scientific studies into a one single brain implant using cutting edge engineering.
Neuralink teams try to connect the brain and computers to give more capacity to humans, much more than smartphones. But the project is still at an early stage.
It all seems utopia but Neuralink is not a commercial product. It is a scientific and medical experiment. Science takes time and requires efforts and collaboration. Neuralink is a promise.
Past models and technologies will survive, at least for a while, but the future is unexpected and change seems inevitable.
Tomorrow, will we all be Gertrude? Would you like to have Ghost in the Shell-like communications?