Brain-to-brain & brain-to-cloud communications … and an explosive health care improvement

Hello Future Fans,

It is rare that I come across a new development that has the potential to drive truly radical and explosive change. I recently had the pleasure of this feeling when I discovered the interview with Mary Lou Jepsen in the (February 18) archives on my favorite podcast, After On.

Mary Lou has a storied career across some of the world’s greatest tech companies, including Alphabet’s ‘X’ moonshot lab and Facebook (working on Oculus). She has a PHD in Optical Physics from Brown University, has been a professor at both MIT and RMIT, has generated 200 or so patents, and was the founder of the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ project. She was recognized in TIME magazine’s “Time 100” as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and also as a CNN top 10 thinker. She has the credentials to pull off something big.

Mary Lou founded a company called ‘Open Water‘, and the technology being developed there has truly stunning potential that might revolutionize medical diagnosis and, potentially, be a realistic ‘neural lace’-style technology i.e. a technology that can connect our brains to each other and the global network in real time, at scale.

The Open water technology leverages holographic principles to map structures inside the body, in real time, at micron accuracy. The method uses near-infrared light shone at the body; a very small percentage goes straight through the flesh and the rest is scattered as it interacts (collides) with our biology. Amazingly, the scattered light can be captured by regular phone-scale optical sensors and re-constructed via algorithms, providing a real-time high-definition view of the smallest components of our bodies. The technology appears to be so sensitive that it can even detect the behaviour of individual neurons. This is exciting enough (phew!), however there is also some chance that the technology could use light to directly interact with the body, providing localised treatments and even – admittedly at a long shot / over the much longer term – implant / create memories and information in the brain.

On the face of it, Mary Lou and the Open Water team are targeting the medical imaging market, where it may be possible to drive 99.9% cost savings and 1 Billion times higher resolution than current MRI technology. Rather than a multi-ton super-cooled multi-million-dollar MRI machine, we’re looking at small consumer-scale devices using mostly off-the-shelf components that could be used endemically across all demographics and geographies.

The disruption of medical imaging has a highly significant impact, as MRI imaging is prohibitively expensive in most countries yet its medical value is very high. Even in the countries with higher wealth, MRIs are used for only a tiny fraction of potentially relevant cases. Having a truly cheap & cheerful imaging device would allow MRI-style analysis to be applied as a commonplace part of general diagnosis or even something that could be done at home, whenever required. There’s a vast potential to save lives, particularly through the early / immediate diagnosis of cancers as soon as they begin to form. This short term healthcare use case also provides a clear business case that will support the development of this technology further.

As exciting as a medical imaging breakthrough might be, the truly explosive application of the technology is, in my view, the potential to read (and maybe modify) brain activity in real time. This kind of technology is something I’ve written about several times and it has the ability to fundamentally change the world. While our brains are marvels of biology and are capable of lighting fast considerations, our ability to communicate, or interact with the world of information, is fundamentally constrained by our reading speed, our speaking speed, or our typing speed. We have an acute & severe bandwidth problem; in the podcast there is reference to a ‘Stephen Hawking’ problem, whereby Stephen’s exceptional brain was trapped behind his (still relatively clunky) communications / typing device; it’s a sufficient analogy.

Removing the human bandwidth problem would be truly one of the most explosive and meaningful evolutionary steps that humanity might ever experience. We’d potentially be able to communicate in real time and at the speed of thought. Initially there are firm reasons to believe that reading thought / intent will be possible and, I would argue, this (reading from the brain) is the more important half of the bandwidth challenge, given that our senses are already quite good at absorbing information from the world (i.e. writing information to the brain). There is enough evidence already that we can read basic thoughts from the brain using MRIs (yes, really!), however MRIs are clearly too expensive (and a bit bulky for the home if you ask me!). If the Open Water technology can additionally solve the challenge of inserting information in the human mind via light interactions with neurons, as seems tantalisingly possible, then we may reach the ultimate ability to interconnect the entirety of humanity with each other and with every piece of information ever made. I can’t think of any potential technology that would beat that – forget the smartphone, that was a sideshow at best!

As is clear by now, I was hugely impressed with this (early stage) technology and I see a truly staggering potential. It’s one of the first meaningful / sufficiently ‘real’ candidates for a ‘neural lace’-style technology that may free the human mind from its low-bandwidth constraints. Solving that challenge is one of the real ‘breakthrough’ technologies that I am looking out for. Revolutionizing medical imaging and saving countless lives is pretty amazing too…

I do encourage my readers to listen to the podcast episode. Its potential blew my mind, and it’s such a brilliant example of raw explosive innovation from a unique individual & perspective on the world. I also generally recommend the After On podcast by Rob Reid. I’ve listened to just about every episode now and there are some serious gems there; I will undoubtedly post in relation to some of the other episodes in due course. I have also taken the rare step (for me) to support it with regular monthly contributions on Patreon!

Thanks for reading! All the best out there in the future …