One of the most exciting and frightening outcomes of technological advancement is the potential to merge our minds with machines. If achieved, this would profoundly boost our cognitive capabilities. More importantly, however, it could be a revolution in human identity, emotion, spirituality, and self-awareness.

Brain-machine interface technology is already being developed by pioneers and researchers around the globe. It’s still early and today’s tech is fairly rudimentary, but it’s a fast-moving field, and some believe it will advance faster than generally expected. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to connect our brains to the internet via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” Even if the advances are less dramatic, however, they’ll have significant implications.

How might this technology affect human consciousness? What about its implications on our sentience, self-awareness, or subjective experience of our illusion of self?

Consciousness can be hard to define, but a holistic definition often encompasses many of our most fundamental capacities, such as wakefulness, self-awareness, meta-cognition, and sense of agency. Beyond that, consciousness represents a spectrum of awareness, as seen across various species of animals. Even humans experience different levels of existential awareness.

From psychedelics to meditation, there are many tools we already use to alter and heighten our conscious experience, both temporarily and permanently. These tools have been said to contribute to a richer life, with the potential to bring experiences of beauty, love, inner peace, and transcendence. Relatively non-invasive, these tools show us what a seemingly minor imbalance of neurochemistry and conscious internal effort can do to the subjective experience of being human.

Taking this into account, what implications might emerging brain-machine interface technologies have on the “self”?

The Tools for Self-Transcendence

At the basic level, we are currently seeing the rise of “consciousness hackers” using techniques like non-invasive brain stimulation through EEG, nutrition, virtual reality, and ecstatic experiences to create environments for heightened consciousness and self-awareness. In Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explore this trillion-dollar altered-states economy and how innovators and thought leaders are “harnessing rare and controversial states of consciousness to solve critical challenges and outperform the competition.” Beyond enhanced productivity, these altered states expose our inner potential and give us a glimpse of a greater state of being. AI & Machines – Learn More

Why The Future Is In The Hands Of Individuals, Not Corporations

The power to innovate is falling into the hands of hyper-talented individuals.

Traditionally, the largest and most successful corporations were also the largest employers. Manufacturing and retail businesses required factories, warehouses, logistics and plenty of manpower, all working in harmony to deliver their product or service. Building this capability took years, requiring significant capital investments. Thus, competitors were few and far between, and disruption was painfully slow to make a dent on existing hierarchies.

 

But with the rise of technology, the model of success has gradually evolved, with businesses requiring fewer and fewer resources and employees to make an impact. Whatsapp is the perfect example; already worth $19bn with only 55 employees. And as we enter the next wave of tech innovation, we’ll increasingly see power transfer away from traditional ‘corporations’ and fall into the hands of smaller groups of highly skilled and hyper-talented individuals.

More, but increasingly complex opportunities

There has never been a more exciting time to be an entrepreneur, with emerging technologies bringing an unprecedented number of opportunities for innovation across platforms and software, with minimal physical resources and infrastructure required. We’re only now beginning to understand the potential of tools such as AI, machine learning, AR, VR, and the Internet of Things, and how they can be combined to create breakthroughs across a whole range of industries and problems.

Yet, identifying and then maximizing these complex and increasingly technical opportunities requires equally specialist knowledge and skills, along with the ability to respond rapidly to new innovations and competition. Understanding and manipulating the most cutting-edge tools requires the best brains, not to mention the drive, resilience and vision to identify the ideas with the most potential. The barriers to entry are rising, placing the power in the hands of those highly capable individuals, who are no longer reliant on building large organizations or physical assets to realize their ambitions.

Size doesn’t equal power

Corporations have always struggled to innovate, lacking the natural agility and flexibility of smaller organizations. However, as we enter this new age of innovation, it is becoming even tougher for the incumbents to keep up with the pace of change and increasing complexity, even with all their manpower and their abundance of cash lying dormant on the balance sheet.

What these big businesses are lacking is the ability to harness the power of the most talented individuals, by providing an environment where they can thrive. Radical change needs mavericks and risk takers who in turn need the freedom and ability to innovate; not be put in a straight-jacket and told to behave and operate according to corporate rules. The most extreme innovators don’t fit into old-fashioned, archaic organizational structures, which means it’s very difficult for big businesses to attract, integrate and retain these individuals.

Investing in these most cutting-edge technologies is also extremely risky, and corporations are too afraid of making mistakes and too busy covering their backs to take a serious punt on ideas that might not build any value. Innovation requires agility and radical thinking, which is impossible in an environment that is paralyzed by politics, an aversion to change and worries of cannibalising its existing revenue streams and product lines. Their only real hopes are spin-offs, joint ventures and acquisitions of the most talented individuals – not in-house innovation.  

Supporting the individual

Those who succeed in the next wave of innovation will be those individuals and small teams with the technical skills and a ‘knack’ for understanding the end vision, along with the freedom and agility to explore the unknown. But to have this freedom, these individuals must be adequately supported with resources, networks and capital to take the necessary risks and follow their instincts.

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Kjartan Rist

Contributor

I write about the rapidly evolving VC and start-up sector in Europe
The spaceborne computer displayed in a mockup of the ISS before its launch last year
The spaceborne computer displayed in a mockup of the ISS before its launch last year. [Photo: courtesy of HPE]

We’re a long way from the HAL-9000 (thankfully), but NASA is considering a bigger role for high-end computers in deep-space missions, such as a journey to Mars. To prepare, the International Space Station has been hosting a system built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) for the past 11 months. The initial findings, according to HPE: It works without major glitches.

The system, an Apollo 4000-series enterprise server, is considered a “supercomputer” because it can perform 1 trillion calculations per second (one teraflop). That’s not so rare nowadays, but it’s way more computing power than NASA has had in space. Those resources can do complex analysis on large amounts of data that aren’t practical to beam back to Earth.

The key aspect of this test was to see if a standard, off-the-shelf computer could survive the abuse of life in space–especially radiation exposure–using only software modifications.

The computer will get a full evaluation when it returns to Earth later this year, but HPE says it’s already learned three valuable lessons:

  • Software can protect a system: The Apollo 4000 constantly monitored the performance of key components for possible effects from radiation. Whenever one operated out of parameters, the system hunkered down in idle mode, and then did a full health check before resuming.
  • You can’t count on the internet: HPE’s software was written assuming near-constant internet access, which is not the reality in space. HPE is considering modifications not just for spaceborne systems but for any running in remote locations. Read More
IBM claims that Summit is currently the world’s “most powerful and smartest scientific supercomputer” with a peak performance of a whopping 200,000 trillion calculations per second.
IBM claims that Summit is currently the world’s “most powerful and smartest scientific supercomputer” with a peak performance of a whopping 200,000 trillion calculations per second.

IBM and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) today unveiled Summit, the department’s newest supercomputer. IBM claims that Summit is currently the world’s “most powerful and smartest scientific supercomputer” with a peak performance of a whopping 200,000 trillion calculations per second. That performance should put it comfortably at the top of the Top 500 supercomputer ranking when the new list is published later this month. That would also mark the first time since 2012 that a U.S.-based supercomputer holds the top spot on that list.

Summit, which has been in the works for a few years now, features 4,608 compute servers with two 22-core IBM Power9 chips and six Nvidia Tesla V100 GPUs each. In total, the system also features over 10 petabytes of memory. Given the presence of the Nvidia GPUs, it’s no surprise that the system is meant to be used for machine learning and deep learning applications, as well as the usual high performance computing workloads for research in energy and advanced materials that you would expect to happen at Oak Ridge.

IBM was the general contractor for Summit and the company collaborated with Nvidia, RedHat and InfiniBand networking specialists Mellanox on delivering the new machine.

“Summit’s AI-optimized hardware also gives researchers an incredible platform for analyzing massive datasets and creating intelligent software to accelerate the pace of discovery,” said Jeff Nichols, ORNL associate laboratory director for computing and computational sciences, in today’s announcement.

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