Abu Dhabi: In 10 years, we’ll be able to learn French by swallowing a pill, claims Dr Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and co-founder of the MIT Media Lab.
“We are looking for ways to interact directly with the neurons, reaching the brain from within and not through the eyes, which have become outdated instruments,” the man who invented the touchscreen and predicted the most important technological revolutions of recent years, told the audience at the majlis of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, on Wednesday.
The 75-year-old co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and its director of over 20 years, said that over the next decade, we will increasingly see direct brain interaction. It will emerge in two and very different ways: from the outside and the inside of the head.
Brain scans for medical purposes are already common, increasingly low-cost and soon to be in real-time, he said. Not surprisingly they will become a common means of computer interface. Call it ‘computer mind reading’.
“More astonishingly, communicating with the brain from the inside will also emerge, not just from implants, but by using the blood stream to deliver information to our neurons. This is why I have publicly invoked the provocative example of learning French by taking a pill,” Negroponte said.
When Negroponte invented the touchscreen in the 1970s, the press overwhelmingly criticised him. More or less the same thing happened again in the ’90s, when he predicted that we would soon “buy books directly from the internet”.
Dr Negroponte gave a speech entitled ‘Biotech is the New Digital’, effectively summarising his life’s work and future goals.
“At MIT, we do things that are not yet on the market and that seem ridiculous,” he said. “Today, everyone talks about AI and machine learning. In our laboratories, we have been studying these phenomena since the early ’50s”.
Nowadays, his new obsession is biotech, which he regards as “the new digital technology”. Especially biomechatronics, that focuses on the interactivity of biological organs (including the brain) with electromechanical devices and systems and used to reproduce and improve the physical abilities of living organisms. Hence, a pill to learn French.
“In the future, Negroponte says, the differences between bits, the smallest unit of data in a computer, and atoms, the smallest particle of a chemical element, will disappear for the simple reason that we are making things smaller and smaller. He explained: “When I grew up, the man-made world (we called it that) and the artificial world were so separate that there were whole professions like architecture, devoted to making graceful and respectful interfaces between the two. Today, by contrast, we can engineer and re-engineer nature, we can design animals and we are approaching a time when all human disease can be eliminated.
In this sense, the dominant information technologies of tomorrow will be synthetic biology, genomics and what I will call computational life sciences. Those are the new information industries, benefiting from — among other things — what has come to be known as big data. It will happen not by one discipline advancing, but several, from both the overlaps and the white spaces among them.”
Dr Negroponte added that our lessons from the digital revolution are the enormous value of radical ideas, ones that looked outrageous at the time, but had a safe harbour in universities. “Typically, the advocates were considered misfits and came from all sorts of different disciplines. This is certain to happen again as biotech becomes the new digital,” he noted.