The neural lace, popularized by Iain Banks in his Culture novels , is a staple of Singularity sci-fi. A tiny node that insinuates its tendrils into the very fabric of the brain, it enhances cognition, allows telepathic communication, acts as a machine interface, and even backs up your brain state so you can be re-instantiated upon the death of your meat body. It is almost the Holy Grail of the Singularity, a point at which technological progress becomes exponential. Many believe that this will only be possible with a full brain computer interface.
Enter Charles Lieber. He has produced a flexible nanomesh that can roll up into a syringe as small as 100 micrometers . He injects the nanomesh into mice brains, where they unfurl and grow into brain matter. What is fascinating is that the mice neurons grow into the mesh, even forming connections with neurons. Lieber says “They’re what I call ‘neuro-philic’ — they actually like to interact with neurons.”  The mesh seamlessly becomes a part of the brain. The cellular-electronic interface allows for uninhibited communication between the mesh and individual neurons. Lieber’s group was able to record signals from the mesh, and watch how they changed when neuro or cardio drugs were administered. Adding microscopic RFID antenna and some RAM is in the works , leading to a sophisticated brain-computer interface!
This procedure is much less invasive than existing procedures. Quadriplegics can control prosthetic limbs, but this requires large incisions to install chips. In these procedures, the surrounding brain matter often becomes inflamed, and pulls away from the conducting material rendering them inactive . In contrast, the picture to the right shows the nanomesh after a few weeks in the mice brain. There is no inflammation and the mesh is highly integrated. Lieber plans to use the nanomesh to research neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s . The military has also invested in the research for performance enhancement through the U.S. Air Force’s Cyborgcell program.
The potential for this nanomesh is huge. Research by Michael Graziano, inventor of attention schema theory, suggests that the mesh can be used to transmit complex information and perform sophisticated functions. He has investigated the mapping of the motor cortex. It was thought that each muscle is mapped to an individual part of the motor cortex. However, Graziano found that the motor cortex maps complex coordinated movements, not just individual muscles. “When one site in the motor cortex is stimulated, the hand closes into grip-like position and moves toward the mouth as the mouth opens, all in a coordinated fashion. ”
Since the nanomesh makes contact with individual neural synapses, there is the possibility of stimulating even finer neural hotspots than Graziano’s group has done. With the hyperfine control, we can transmit complex functions and even sophisticated ideas. Not only transmission of nuanced ideas would be possible, but hypercoordinated athletic feats.
Given the immense potential of this technology, Lieber says he plans to start human trials as soon as possible. So you tell me, is the singularity near?
1. Picture from “Holographic Universe” by Insight Magazine http://www.myinsightmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/iStock_000018892265Large.jpg
2. A review of Matter by Iain Banks
3. “Syringe Injectable Electronics” by Lieber and others in Nature Nanotechnology
4. “Injectable device delivers nano-view of the brain” by Peter Reuell in Harvard Gazette
5. “A Flexible Circuit Has Been Injected into Living Brains” by Devin Powell
6. “Scientists Just Invented the Neural Lace” by Annalee Newitz
7. “Unpacking the toolkit of human consciousness” by Morgan Kelly