We have a new winner in the futurism popularity contest.
Cities made of bone? You BORE me.
There is a new “it” kid, and its name is neural dust.
Neural dust motes have taken the top spot in future tech news for the past few weeks. These little guys love the limelight.
In my last post, I lamented the fact that machines could not meditate for me. Who—or what—would save me? My despair was total.
But lo, here the neural dust, weary of rest!
Neural dust represents the next step in mind-machine interfaces. It can’t meditate for me yet, but it’s still early in the day.
And that name! Some have called it “smart dust,” but I think using the “smart” prefix is losing its usefulness. Smart shoes. Smart bagels. Smart lint.
When everything is smart, it’s just “everything.”
So let’s stick with “neural dust.” What images does the name conjure for you? I see sinister clouds that swim through the air, shooting up noses to take control of our helpless cerebrums.
It’s not quite that easy (yet). Each neural “dust mote” must be implanted individually, and they aren’t dust-sized. Current motes are 3 millimeters in length, though project scientists have a target width of 50 microns (half the width of a human hair).
The neural motes will eventually read, report on, and even simulate brain cells.
So what’s the big deal? Size? Partly. But the key breakthrough is the use of wireless ultrasonic pulses for communication. Ultrasonic does not damage the soft tissue of the brain.
This takes mind-machine interfaces away from wires, which irritate tissue and trigger biological defense responses.
So we’re probably going to have to say goodbye to the cherished sci-fi image of computers physically linked to brains.
Farewell, you gorgeous illustrations of machines injecting wires directly through the human skull. *sniff* *wipes away tear*
Unless, of course, we discover some NEW problem with wireless communication, like blanket-attack disruption of wireless signals.
Then it’s back to wires.
Predicting the future is tough.
The neural dust project was created to “develop the next generation of brain-machine interfaces,” according to one of the project scientists. It also joins a new federal program called BRAIN, or the “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies” initiative.
Sometimes movies write themselves.
The main thrust of the current project is monitoring neural and nervous system activity. But just monitoring won’t satisfy for very long. It must eventually direct biology. A Scientific American article suggests that neural dust will employ “closed-loop control of nervous system activity.”
Well, let’s hope it stays closed-loop. It’s like my grandfather used to say:
Keep your beers cold and your nervous system loops CLOSED.
Neural dust, like all scary biotech advances, will do enormous good for those with neurological disorders. It may alter our definition of what it means to be human, but many will be able to experience life in a way that nature did not allow.
Which means I don’t get to cross my arms and humbug the technology like I want to.
I could, but it would be a jerk thing to do.
For the rest of you, breathe deeply and stock up on particulate masks. I predict we have less than a month before neural dust is blowing through the streets in great silver clouds.
* I used the word “limelight” early in the post and got curious about its origin. It derives from an old type of stage lighting that directed an oxyhydrogen flame at a cylinder of quicklime (calcium oxide).