I had originally intended this blog item to be about “the future of the brain.” That phrase has such a smart, in-the-know, forward-thinking ring to it. I thought I’d google a few smart, in-the-know, forward-thinking terms and see what the cognoscenti of the AI, transhuman, futurist and other intellectually inclined “crystal ball” movements are saying on the topic. Then I’d wrap it all up tidily for the half-dozen or so of my readers interested in this kind of gazing-at-the-navel-of-a-neuron-style discussion. But a hour or so into my internet spelunking, my vision of where I was headed disappeared down the rabbit hole.

Here’s what I realized when I emerged on the other side: There is nothing much scientifically that you can say about the future of the brain once you get more than, say, five minutes out. This is why everyone who bothers to pontificate about the topic quickly ends up sounding like they are talking about religion, not about good science, or even likely science at all. There’s simply too much we still don’t know about how the brain works and how it changes. Plus there’s this: The possibilities that could be ahead for “the brain” are enormous, much too gauzy for our limited 2016 speculating.

If, however, you insist on speculating on the future of the brain anyway, I can recommend someone entertaining enough to listen to. That would be Professor Nick Bostrom, founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University and author of Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.

Bostrom protects himself from sounding like a theologian by viewing the whole topic as “a riddle wrapped in an enigma.” That’s to say, he views everything you can say about the brain’s future with extreme pessimism, and that, of course, makes him a philosopher. And truly good philosophers, of which Bostrom is one, are the most fun for the rest of us when they deign to speak in reasonably non-technical terms, which Bostrom usually does.

Looking at the brain in a far, far future in Superintelligence, he can envision such things as a massive cognitive cyber-soup, composed of trillions of digital minds operating connectedly. That could lead, he speculates, to brains as big as planets, with billion-year life spans. But he’s not expecting such brains, if they appear, to necessarily produce a blueprint for utopia. For context, he offers this analogy:

”What if the great apes had asked whether they should evolve into Homo sapiens—pros and cons—and they had listed, on the pro side, ‘Oh, we could have a lot of bananas if we became human’? Well, we can have unlimited bananas now, but there is more to the human condition than that.”

What, then, can I report after my afternoon’s inquiry into where we are on our understanding of the brain and where it might take us? Five observations:

1) The brain remains the best example so far of the methods with which the universe is developing itself. To use neuroscientist Anthony Zador’s term, the standard building block is a makeshift “bag of tricks.”

2) Most of the folks speculating on the future of the brain foresee a radical amplification of human abilities ahead (one of these is the extraordinarily readable Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari).

3) Some observers think AI (artificial intelligence) will quickly outstrip our Homo sapiens brain’s capabilities, beginning as soon as the year 2045.

4) When we get careless, those of us who have sought to use “brain studies” in HRD, OD, creativity enhancement and the like are forever sounding like metaphysicists or—heaven forfend!—religion’s homespun, Bible-thumping eschatologists.

5) Making any statement about the brain, including its future, should be done with fear and trembling. We just don’t know very much about how all this works—and we may never know very much.

Vaclav Smil, the Czech-Canadian scientist and policy analyst, has reminded us just how difficult it is for this brain of ours to draw a good bead on what’s already happened to us technologically, much less what may happen. For certain, very few of us would suggest that the 1880s were the most inventive time in history.

Yet Smil writes, “The 1880s were miraculous: They gave us such disparate contributions as antiperspirants, inexpensive lights, reliable elevators, and the theory of electromagnetism—although most people lost in their ephemeral tweets and in Facebook gossip are not even remotely aware of the true scope of this quotidian debt.”

So far, how does history suggest we best proceed with the study of the brain and all else?

Pick a tiny corner of the universe. Explore it to the best of your ability. See if you can spot connections. If you can, try them. If you can’t, don’t assume they aren’t there.


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