Is there a final boundary in human evolution?  Could there ever be a point when the mind could leave the body?  What would it mean for humanity as we know if, if we are no longer ‘shackled to the flesh’?

At the moment, such a development is an ‘outlier’ trend.  Most of the speculation of how and what would happen if the ‘soul’ left the body has come from science fiction.  This has been done in mainstream films – like the Matrix, but perhaps most famously in William Gibson’s novel – Neuromancer.  In this story, the main protagonist, is able to interface directly with computers and control them, moving himself virtually away from his body.

Science fiction, as well as being great fun, is able to provide fictional solutions to challenges of technology enabling someone’s mind to effectively transcend their body?  But what about fact?  What technology would be required to do this, and what technology is emerging that could come close to enabling such a leap?

Current trends

At present, most advances in this area of science concern the therapeutic application of technologies to help people who suffer from disabilities or who have lost limbs or some part of their sensory systems.  Such therapeutic advances are driving sophisticated neuronal control of artificial limbs and computers.  In simple terms, such control is achieved either through reading brain signals (using external sensors, such as plastic caps with lots of electrodes in them, that measure brain activity) or, through direct brain associations known as neuronal interfaces.

Strides are being made in both areas of research – but particular developments are being seen in neuronal interfaces as our knowledge of medicine improves and the scale of our technology reduces.  Research into neuronal interfaces has been in development since the 1980′s and has come to represent a range of sophisticated techniques, through which people can form new neuronal connections with new appliances.  Put simply, using neuronal interfaces, people can train themselves (by forming the necessary neuronal connections) to be able to move artificial limbs and cursors, therefore augmenting their own physiology.[1]  Such advances have tremendous therapeutic benefit and can help people who have lost functionality of their limbs, retrain and grown the brain cells required to derive movement and functionality through the augmented appendages.[2]

There is considerable demand for such technology and significant strides look likely over the next 30 years.  Most advances are likely to start by having therapeutic applications, but these will probably expand into commercial markets as people seek to enhance their own natural abilities either out of interest or for their own competitive advantages.  As understanding and demand increases for such technology, so will its abundance.  Research will probably focus on how to make such augmentations as painless and efficient as possible – for example – neural ‘dust’ technology is currently being developed in the University of California Berkeley that offers a system of thousands of ultra-tiny chips permanently inserted into the brain that can both monitor and communicate data through ultrasound.  It is probably a fair assumption that such technology will continue to be sought and this will increase the sophistication of how we integrate with technology and how we communicate.

Augmentation technology and the ‘Last leap’.

Neural interfaces can take advantage of an important property of the brain, known as neuroplasticity.  This process is what allows us to learn and basically it is because the neurons in the brain are constantly able to form new connections as we learn new things.  So, for example, if someone has a new arm added to them and a neuronal interface connected, with time and training (and a lot of trial and error in the brain) eventually, an associated collection of neurons for moving that arm will form.

The question is now, with this amazing ability and the increasing sophistication of technology, how long will it be until the technology reaches the levels speculated about in science fiction?  If someone can train their brain to recognise an augmented appendage, would it be possible for them to train themselves to use and recognise a new brain-space?  In theory, the space where the soul meets the body, can be altered.  Could a new space can be integrated into the human brain that allows people to move their conscious into a new area?  If so, would this represent the means of enabling the last leap, when the conscious can leave the biological body and move into something new?

So let’s speculate about what this could mean for the soul.  If a technology was developed, that took advantage of natural processes like neuroplasticity and gradually replaced each section of brain data storage.  Piece by piece, it moved through all the essential functions, moved connections from the living parts, little by little into a replicated, artificial brain.  Switching off one as it opened another.  Theoretically, following a gradual and controlled process, the old human brain, could be switched off and replaced with a functioning, artificial brain, that could in theory hold all the same neuronal data that consisted the soul of that person.  Ideas like the ‘exocortex’ describe such a technology.

In reality, it is probably unlikely there would be a sudden ‘leap’ where a person could gradually fill up one artificial brain and switch off their real one.  More likely, and probably more immediately, some people will see the benefits of acquiring an alternative ‘brain space’ as they go through life.  This presents an interesting evolutionary trend – would such a person spend more and more time in the artificial brain, with the biological, original brain being less and less required?  The situation is similar to a ‘drone’ in an Iain M Banks novel, where such robotic systems are built with  three brains, based on hard computer components, degrees of magnitude faster (due to the smaller nano-components) than the back-up brain.

So what?

If you look at current and, as much as we can, the technologies being developed over the next 10-30 years, a ‘leap’ is probably unlikely, but the gradual evolution of an augmented brain is a real possibility.  What this means for the human species is unclear.  Will we see the development of ‘trans-humans’?  Also, if the access to such technology is unevenly distributed, in the early days, most people, except a brave few pioneers are unlikely to volunteer until both the clinical and real-life benefits/competitive advantages are observed and then, in the early stages the technology is likely to be expensive and therefore not available to all.

The trend for human augmentation will continue.  It will set new taboos and change perceptions of what it is to be human.  The development and use of all such technology will probably be controversial and much debated, but as our understanding of it increases and the associated costs go down, one thing is certain, people will start using it for a variety of different reasons – so for genuine, therapeutic applications other for reasons of simple competitive advantage.