Automatic transmission

Today I gave a talk in which I discussed the possibilities (once the required technology has become a bit more advanced), that might arise from direct neural interfaces to the brain. I gave the example of Lebron James, the great basketball star.

Generally speaking, there are three components to James’ success: What’s going on in his brain, what his body can do physically, and the connection between the two. A young man his age selected at random could practice with great intensity for years, and thereby become a fairly good basketball player, but it is highly unlikely this randomly selected individual could ever play at the level of Lebron James.

Part of it is the mental game. Maybe our young randomly selected guy could get that part right. And theoretically he might also be able to develop the required muscular strength and endurance. But achieving that third part — the connection between brain and body — could be the hardest part. Lebron James has an extraordinary quickness of reaction time, a precision in the way his brain can command his body to perform, that may very well be beyond the reach of mere training. Very few individuals, even those in top shape, ever acquire such a high performance level in their brain-body connection.

Which reminds me of automobiles. There was a time when, if you drove a car, you could feel the road by gripping the steering wheel. As you turned into a steer, the mechanical system, the rack and the pinion, would transmit the force of tire upon road through the drive shaft up into your hands.

In modern American cars you can still feel that force, but it’s not real. There’s an electric motor in the steering wheel column, programmed to respond to forces exerted by the wheel upon the transmission. An on-board computer calculates what force your hands should feel, if this had been a purely mechanical system, and sends that amount of force to the steering shaft motor.

There are lots of good reasons for doing it this way. For one thing, you can give the driver more highly nuanced feedback than you ever could through a purely mechanical system. And of course, any deficiencies in responsiveness can be fixed in software.

If there were a direct neural tap into my brain — with the proper software to read incoming nerve signals, and to write outgoing nerve signals — one could implement an analogous sort of automatic transmission to remap the response of the body to signals from the brain. With the right cybernetic assist between my brain and the nerves that control my muscles, I might be able to shoot a basket with the precision and speed of Lebron James.

Although I’d probably never look as good in the uniform.

4 Responses to “Automatic transmission”

  1. Mari says:

    How easy it would be, if my violin bow tells me how my hand should feel (for example, a difficult Subharmonics :) In fact we can already do some of this with motion sensors (like if your bow is straight, the bow speed is steady etc), but then, violinists have learned just fine without such high-tech pedagogy tools for 100s of years :)

  2. admin says:

    Yes, and as Europeans will happily point out to Americans, for decades people have been driving just fine with manual transmissions!

    Then again, I wonder what would happen if Lebron James had access to this kind of technology…

  3. Mari says:

    Slightly unrelated, but I was having a conversation with another teacher here, and he was saying that a student was unable to listen to her own performance while she was playing; very odd. Then the teacher discovered she was in a habit of recording herself, then listening to it afterwards to correct mistakes (!). So why should she listen to herself when she was playing? That’s a case that the technology was actually damaging or hindering her artistic ability…

  4. Paul says:

    Having driven in both the UK and the USA i have to say that driving a manual for any amount of time always gave me shoulder pains. An automatic is just so much easier.

    Technology doesn’t always make things better and it can be hard at times for people to decide when it is best to just not “upgrade”. It seems like we are all constantly pushing for the next best, must have, gadget rather than accepting that it won’t really help all that much..

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