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A common term in science fiction, a neural interface is the next generation in human-computer interfaces, allowing a human nervous system to directly link up to the computer, usually via a link into the spinal cord or via external electrodes. The idea of the neural interface was original produced in cyberpunk novels such as Neuromancer. The idea of the impications of neural interfaces, and the effects on human individuality and conciousness are explored in depth by authors such a Greg Egan. Several films have also been produced dealing with the issue, the most famous being The Matrix, but also including Ghost in The Shell, as well as various poor virtual reality B-movies.

In real life neural interface research is being funded, mainly to enable paraplegics to control wheelchairs using their brain. Unfortunately the major problem with the totally immersive idea of a neural interface popularised in sci-fi is effectively the bandwidth capacity of the human brain: in order to create a high bandwidth interface a large nerve bundle would have to be converted to the interface, such as the optic nerve and electrodes certainly wouldn't work. Alternative ideas involve inserting the interface directly into the brain, but that is limited by our understanding of the brain structure. Also, the neural interace is currently limited by the fact it can only recieve signals from the brain, sending signals to the brain is significantly more difficult, as recieving signals is a matter of measuring voltages, whereas a return signal has to generate these in a controlled way. Finally we have no way of knowing how the brain would respond to the new signals: whether it would adapt so we could percieve them, the currently held view, or whether it would be to drastic a sensory change.

Despite these problems current research has shown that it is possible to create a limited,one-way neural interface, so it is still a viable possibility, and a cool one at that.

While technologically fascinating and exciting, the direct electrical neural interface offers us simply one more type of neural interface. For thousands of years now we have used another. Writing.

While it may seem pedestrian, the way in which the brain adapts itself to an array of electrodes in a region to send and receive messages is the same sort of adaptation the brain makes in any situation where we are adding information that cannot be normally absorbed by the senses. In the case of this advance in technology, the neural net that is our brain is trained by the mind to transmit and accept small electrical impulses to electrodes. By this method the brain can take any electrical device and by some measure exert control over it purely by trained electrical impulse, given of course that the device was set up to receive and send small impulses.(So don't try to ram your mouse cable into your ear) This is an interesting development. It means that we could develop sophisticated interfaces that give us a great deal of direct control over computers. We may be those new robot masters that have made everyone so excited. If you can imagine computing with your mind, storing memories on hard disk, reading entire volumes at a speed only limited to the bandwidth between your computer and your brain.

This may seem incredibly optimistic], perhaps brazenly so, but I am confident because the human neural net has achieved a number of things by indirect means before using other senses. The ability of the mind to adapt the way it harvests data depending on its present circumstances has proven remarkable. From the way a child learns to read and, in so doing, can take from the written word the experiences that they would otherwise have no access to the way a blind man can learn to read dots imprinted on a flat surface with the speed of any sighted person's ability to read words on a page. There is another sort of indirect neural interface which used a camera and a special device placed on the tongue that sent mechanical symbols to the tactile nerves there representing the pictures from the camera. The effect it was giving a blind person a limited form of sight. The human brain seems extremely willing to accept any form of input and just as willing to take the time to learn how to parse it.

This phenomenon is not merely human, any animal with a sufficiently large nervous system is capable of such interface with its environment. The reason I have singled out the written word is that it is a special form of interface in that it is a physical manifestation of meaning. On learning how to read the human mind becomes capable of receiving the thoughts and ideas of other minds via the written word. We can learn any other idea simply by reading it. We don't need to see some things attempted if we can understand them through a well written description. We can create internal visualizations of the images that are described by the words we read. It is this incredible power and versatility that leads me to believe that a direct neural interface is simply a new form of interaction.

Furthermore, with the expansion of the internet as a tool for learning and accessing information human beings have entered into a state of partly relying on the internet for a great deal of information. We use the internet like a pair of binoculars; with it we learn faster with it than we otherwise could but we don't need to work as hard to retain that knowledge because it remains at our fingertips. In entering into such a relationship, we have made the internet an extension of the array of senses we use to pull information from the world around us.

In order to give us the immersion that various science fiction stories like the Matrix or Neuromancer or Mother of Storms posit, we would basically need to splice in electrical interfaces with all of our senses, requiring massive brain surgery and the possibility for highly debilitating damage. But a simple 8, 32 or even 128 bit signal would be a plausible method for the transfer of general text information. The purpose, in the end, for any sort of neural interface would have to be the supplementation of our senses with a new sense or two based in the information we can take from computers. This opens up the possibility of an infinite variety of senses we could gain from this new symbiosis with technology, but one which we have the innate ability to take on because of the versatility of the brain matter that has been common to animal life for the past 500 million years. Hell, it's about time for an upgrade.

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