The Body Is Not a Computer—Stop Thinking of It as One

May 15, 2017, 06:00 PM

When former DARPA chief Regina Dugan announced on stage last month that Facebook planned to build a brain computer interface to allow users to send their thoughts directly to the social network without a keyboard intermediary, it had all the Silicon Valley swagger of Facebook circa “move fast and break things.” With the same audacity that any other Facebook product might be announced, Dugan explained that the company hopes to have this revolutionary brain-hack ready to ship “within a few years.”

It’s an admirable goal, but there’s a problem. The body is not a computer. It cannot be hacked, rewired, engineered or upgraded like one, and certainly not at the ruthless pace of a Silicon Valley startup.

Over the past decade, science has made some notable progress in using technology to defy the limits of the human form, from mind-controlled prosthetic limbs to a growing body of research indicating we may one day be able to slow the process of aging. Our bodies are the next big candidate for technological optimization, so it’s no wonder that tech industry bigwigs have recently begun expressing interest in them. A lot of interest.

Facebook’s announcement that it plans to build a brain-computer interface that types at 100 words-per-minute came on the heels of Tesla-founder Elon Musk’s announcement that he was forming a new venture, Neuralink, to develop a brain implant capable of telepathy, among other things. Other rich Silicon Valley types are investing big in pills like nootropics to “hack” their brain chemistry, and still other pills, diets, gut bacteria and DNA data-dives in hopes of achieving a longer, healthier life. “Humans are the next platform,” Geoff Woo, the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz-funded nootropics company Nootrobox told New York Magazine last fall.

Are we really, though?

Take the most computational part of the body, the brain. Our brains do not “store” memories as computers do, simply calling up a desired piece of information from a memory bank. If they did, you’d be able to effortlessly remember what you had for lunch yesterday, or exactly the way your high school boyfriend smiled. Nor do our brains process information like a computer. Our gray matter doesn’t actually have wires that you can simply plug-and-play to overwrite depression a la Eternal Sunshine.

The body, too, is more than just a well-oiled piece of machinery. We have yet to identify a single biological mechanism for aging or fitness that any pill or diet can simply “hack.”

Research into some of these things is underway, but so far much of what it has uncovered is that the body and brain are incredibly complex. Scientists do hope, for example, that one day brain computer interfaces might help alleviate severe cases of mental illnesses like depression, and DARPA is currently funding a $65 million research effort aimed at using implanted electrodes to tackle some of the trickiest mental illnesses. After decades of research, it’s still unclear which areas of the brain even make the most sense to target for each illness.

But as Silicon Valley has begun to dip its toes in the realm of biology, it has brought along its hacker ethos. All you need to achieve ambitious feats of technological innovation are a few all-night hackathons, right?

Within a mere two years, Facebook thinks it’ll know whether its plan to send 100-word-per-minute status updates from our brains to our screens is possible. The current record for typing with a brain-computer interface, by the way, is somewhere around eight words-per-minute with an implant placed inside the brain.

And Musk, famous for taking on seemingly impossible moonshots with no clear deadline, said he imagines Neuralink’s brain-computer interface making its debut within a decade. This is despite the fact that the brain-reading technology it relies upon is, at this point, little more than a fanciful blueprint. The technology available today can only measure a fraction of the neural activity necessary to...