You’ve probably heard the phrase “to think outside of the box”, but what about thinking outside of your actual brain? It may seem like a crazy idea, but there are technological developments on the horizon that would be literally mind-expanding. I’m talking about the idea of the exocortex – an extension to your brain.
What’s an Exocortex?
In anatomy, the “cortex” is the outer layer of any organ, but most people think specifically of the brain’s cortices. It’s these outer, relatively new structures that give us our unique human intelligence. It’s in this sense that the word “exocortex” is used. That’s not to say that it will structurally resemble a brain cortex, but that it will funcion as an additional artificial brain structure; one that augments the brain. Under the assumption that the conscious mind dwells in the brain, it follows that an artificial expansion to the brain means that the mind will expand to fill the extra capacity.
Of course, the idea of an exocortex is completely theoretical at this point. No one actually knows what it will look like or exactly how it will work. Presumably it will be an electronic device, but there is no reason why it could not be a genetic modification to the brain or an engineered biological structure which gets implanted. Your exocortex could be a network of nano-robots forming a secondary neural net in the brain.
Who says your exocortex has to be in your skull? Presumably it could sit somewhere else, such as on the spine, and send signals to the brain from there. It may even be that our exocortices are too big to fit anywhere in our bodies. It may exist as a virtual machine in a future computer cloud, requiring a network connection to work. Which brings up the possibility that your mind may be split between the inside of your skull and a computer on the other side of the planet.
One thing that we can be fairly certain about is that, apart from a biological cortex, all exocortices will need some sort of BCI or “brain-computer interface” to do their job.
Plug it In
I’ve written a separate article on this site that discusses BCIs in some detail, but to briefly recap here I’ll just say one or two things about them.
Basically, our brains are complex electrochemical networks with a constant stream of incredibly complex signals patterns dancing between neurons. The brain has an internal language which is analogous to machine code – not in the sense that it is binary, but that the outside world as described by our senses is represented in some way.
Things like thoughts and memories have a physical representation in the brain somehow. We can already read some of what goes on in the brain using MRI, EEG, and implantable electrodes. We can also send information crudely using things like implanted chips that insert electrodes into the brain matter and add their voices to the electrical storm within this remarkable organ.
Not Quite the Same
While an exocortex may require the use of a BCI in order to talk to your brain, BCIs themselves are not inherently linked to the function and purpose of an exocortex. There are plenty of other things that can be connected to the brain through a BCI; for the most part this would encompass things like artificial limbs. For example, back in 2012 a company called BrainGate stunned the world by unveiling their direct brain interface that allowed a paralyzed woman to consciously control a robotic arm.
There will one day also be all sorts of brain implants that will let us exchange information with all sorts of computer systems. While you may have a phone now and in the near future may wear something like augmented reality glasses, that hardware may eventually make it into your brain and the rest of your body.
The difference between these devices and an exocortex is that your perception of them will still be external to your consciousness. Right now you may be staring at a computer screen, which is an image you perceive externally. It’s not generated by your mind. If we were to put a little chip in your visual cortex that made your computer display appear in your visual feed it’s not really different in principle to staring at a physical screen. This is where an exocortex would be fundamentally different from anything else. Once it is installed it won’t feel like a computer bolted to your brain. You will simply feel like yourself – just smarter and with a far better memory.
How I Roll
Although exocortices don’t yet exist, we can imagine what it would be like to have one. Imagine if you suddenly had an extra 50 points on your IQ. Mathematical or logical problems that you found extremely hard before could now be simple to solve. You’re still the same person, with the same memories and experiences, but your horizons are broader. You can think more deeply, more quickly, and for longer.
Because your exocortex can talk directly to your memory you may be able to learn new skills almost instantly. One moment you may not understand a word of Japanese and the next the information is in your brain and you can understand it like a native. It seems far-fetched, but the only thing standing in our way is a serious of solvable problems. Some of these problems are very hard indeed, but that’s not the same as saying they cannot be solved in principle.
There’s a lot of cautionary noises made about the threats of artificial intelligence these days, but it may turn out that humans equipped with exocortices could beat those AIs and become the highest intelligences of the future. Rather than being supplanted by AI, we’ll meld together and form something new and better.
This is not just fanciful either. DARPA is throwing a lot of money at developing a high-end BCI, which may provide a first generation of interface capable of supporting a basic exocortex.
Another company called Kernel has just put $100m towards developing an intelligence amplification implant. Clearly this is not just a pie-in-the-sky idea, but one that’s attracting serious attention and money.
You’re Halfway There
The thing is, humans have already had a taste of something like an exocortex. It’s not as integral, but on a philosophical level it’s actually not that far off. If we look at things like paper and the written language, these are some of the earliest intelligence- and memory-boosting technologies. Since their invention there has been a string of technologies that have helped us overcome the limitations of our minds.
The abacus, the calculator, and all the computing muscle we have today represent a sort of external brain that offloads thinking duties from the wetware inside your skull. When was the last time you bothered to remember a phone number? What about things like historical dates or any other information that’s just a Google search away? The truth is that brain augmentation has been with us for a long, long time. An exocortex may just be a way to bring it all home.