Right now, researchers are working around the world to find ways of restoring sight to the blind by creating a bionic eye. The closest analogy is the bionic ear, more properly called a cochlear implant, which works by directly stimulating the auditory nervous system.
While the direct targeting of retinal tissue is analogous to the bionic ear, the implications for our grandchildren and great grandchildren go well beyond the blind community who are the intended recipients.
In the decades since the first cochlear implant, the sole objective of research has been to improve the quality of the sound heard. There is no hint of a benefit in adding additional information into the stream.
But the visual cortex isn’t the auditory nervous system, it is very close to being a direct feed into brain.
The bionic eye could be very different to the bionic ear. In the first instance, it is obvious that a direct feed of location data from the web could be added to the stream to help interpret the world around the user. It isn’t much of leap to go beyond navigation and make the bionic eye a full interface to the Internet.
By the time the bionic eye is as mature as the bionic ear is today, the information revolution should be complete and we will well and truly be living in an information economy. Arguably the most successful citizens will navigate information overload with ease. But how will they do it?
Today’s multi-dimensional tools for navigating complex information just won’t cut it. Each additional dimension that the human mind can understand reduces the number of “small world” steps needed to solve information problems. You can read more about the Small Worlds measure in chapter 5 of Information-Driven Business or find a summary of the technique in MIKE2.0.
While normal visual tools can only support two or at most three dimensions, business intelligence tools often try to add an extra one or even two through hierarchies or filters. However, these representations are seldom very successful and are only useful to highly skilled users.
A direct feed into the brain, even if it has to go through the visual nervous system, could provide so much more than a convenient form of today’s Google Glasses. Properly trained, the brain will adapt visual data to meet information needs in very efficient and surprising ways that go well beyond in-mind images. It is entirely conceivable that by the late 21st century people will think in a dozen dimensions and navigate terabytes of complex information with ease using an “in-eye” machine connection.
Of course, the implications go well beyond the technology. How will such implants be used by the wider population? Will the desire for the ultimate man-machine interface be so overwhelming as to overcome ethical concerns of operating on otherwise healthy patients?
The implications are also social and will affect parents (perhaps even our children). The training required for the brain could overwhelm many adult minds, but may be most effective when available from an early age. In fact, it could be that children who are implanted with a bionic eye will derive the greatest advantages from the information economy in the latter decades of the 21st century.
Imagine the pressure on parents in future decades to decide which brand of implant to install in their children. It makes today’s iOS, Android and Windows smartphone debates pale into insignificance!