Cortical coprocessors: an outboard OS for the brain

Paul Raven @ 27-09-2010

The last time I remember encountering the word “coprocessor” was when my father bought himself a 486DX system with all the bells and whistles, some time back in the nineties. Now it’s doing the rounds in this widely-linked Technology Review article about brain-function bolt-ons; it’s a fairly serious examination of the possibilities of augmenting our mind-meat with technology, and well worth a read. Here’s a snippet:

Given the ever-increasing number of brain readout and control technologies available, a generalized brain coprocessor architecture could be enabled by defining common interfaces governing how component technologies talk to one another, as well as an “operating system” that defines how the overall system works as a unified whole–analogous to the way personal computers govern the interaction of their component hard drives, memories, processors, and displays. Such a brain coprocessor platform could facilitate innovation by enabling neuroengineers to focus on neural prosthetics at an algorithmic level, much as a computer programmer can work on a computer at a conceptual level without having to plan the fate of every individual bit. In addition, if new technologies come along, e.g., a new kind of neural recording technology, they could be incorporated into a system, and in principle rapidly coupled to existing computation and perturbation methods, without requiring the heavy readaptation of those other components.

Of course, the idea of a brain OS brings with it the inevitability of competing OSs in the marketplace… including a widely-used commercial product that needs patching once a week so that dodgy urban billboards can’t trojan your cerebellum and turn you into an unwitting evangelist for under-the-counter medicines and fake watches, an increasingly-popular slick-looking solution with a price-tag (and aspirational marketing) to match, and a plethora of forked open-source systems whose proponents can’t understand why their geeky obsession with being able to adjust the tiniest settings effectively excludes the wider audience they’d love to reach. Those “I’m a Mac / I’m a PC” ads will get a whole new lease of remixed and self-referential life…