Daniel Tammet is a highly functioning autistic savant. He has a form of Synesthesia where he sees numbers as having their own unique shapes, colors and textures. Thus, he can feel the results of a math equation and instantly determine if a number looks like a prime. He also speaks 11 languages, one of them, Icelandic, he learned in one week. The unique thing about Daniel is that he is able to articulate how his brain works and he has even written a book about it. What’s not unique is his abilities. There are many savants walking among us, with seemingly superhuman abilities in Math, Music, Memory and Language. Now, what if I told you that technology might be able to recreate these abilities in normal people like you and me? What if technology could make us superintelligent? What if technology could make us all into savants?
In order to explain how ordinary humans could be made into savants with superhuman performance we need to examine several topics – savantism, synesthesia, augmented reality, neural plasticity, artificial senses and wearables.
Synesthesia is a condition where sensory stimuli being handled by one region of the brain bleeds over to another region that usually handles other sensory stimuli. Different cross-connections is possible, like perception of shapes (letters and numbers) that triggers perception of colors – with the effect that each letter and number has an associated color in the Synesthetes mind. One of the most interesting is Chromesthesia which is the association of sounds with colors. For some variants it can be described as the ability to see music – often described as similar to fireworks. A secondary effect of seeing sounds is that it can lead to the Synesthete having perfect pitch – the visual centers of the brain help in understanding and working with sounds.
This brings us into Savantism – a condition where a human has capabilities that exceeds what would be considered normal. Interestingly, many savants are described as being synesthetes as well. It kind of makes logical sense, in the case of Chromesthesia, being able to use both the auditory and visual centers of the brain to work with music, compared to just the auditory, would lead to a tremendous advantage. As a non-chromoesthete I can attest to the difficulty of reproducing music I’ve heard or comparing two different pieces and point out the main differences – yet I can close my eyes and with a lot of detail recollect an image I saw yesterday. The parts of the brain handling visual information is larger than the parts handling auditory – and abilities don’t increase linearly as you add neurons, they are networked and thus abilities increase exponentially – as a normal human you simply can’t compete with somebody that can bring five times the number of neurons.
However, as humans we have never been constrained by the cards dealt us by genetics and biology – could we take an ordinary human and make him or her into a Savant? Could we artificially induce Synesthesia? It turns out, we might not be far off being able to do that.
Augmented reality is technology that is able to augment your perception of reality with computer-generated sensory input. Most recently the Microsoft Hololens have made headlines as a stand alone helmet computer where computer generated visual information is overlaid the real world. Although visual overlays occupies a lot of the public imagination, other variants exists, like LIDAR devices giving a blind person auditory clues about his surroundings. With augmented reality it should be very easy to take what you see, recognize numbers within your field of vision and overlay colors, shapes and textures on top of those numbers. You could use augmented reality to recreate many forms of Synesthesia – giving ordinary humans the ability to use additional sensory areas in the brain to help understand certain problems.
The problem is of course that a Synesthete has had the condition all their life – many musician with Chromoesthetia doesn’t even know they have it since they don’t know how music without “the fireworks” could be perceived. It is not enough to replicate how a Synesthete perceives the world.
That brings us to the concept of Neural Plasticity. It was long thought that at a certain age the brain settled and only minimally changed as we grew older. That assumption, however, is not true. The human brain is in fact incredibly adaptable. Even neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells, occur frequently in adults – contrary to the very persistent myth that the number of neurons adults have is set. What’s even more interesting is that the brain is able to change much faster than previously thought possible. One of my favorite experiments is the experiment where one wears glasses that turns the world upside down. Imagine wearing those, you’ll see things falling upwards, when you move your arms they would move in the opposite direction, you would think it would be very hard to do anything useful wearing those glasses. Experiments show however, that after 10 days of wearing those glasses all the time, you would be able to function completely normal – without any impediment what so ever. Your brain would have fully adapted to vision being upside down. The capability of the brain to rapidly adapt to completely new stimuli, or augmented stimuli is incredible, but it requires persistence – which leads us to only one conclusion, if we are going to artificially induce synesthesia, we need to do so in a way so it always happens.
Neural plasticity becomes really interesting when we combine the concept with artificial senses. In an experiment done at the Osnabrück University, published in the Journal of Neural Engineering and reported by Wired – subjects wore a bracelet that continuously vibrated in the direction of north. They wore this for six weeks, with the effect for some subjects that they did not notice the buzzing anymore, but their behavior changed – to the extent that you could attribute that behavior change to having a perfect sense of direction. In effect, the subjects of the experiment was given a new sense through a wearable device. A perfect sense of direction is not the only sense people has given themselves through technology – from biohackers subdermaly injecting rare earth magnets to sense magnetic fields to military research connecting sensors in attack helicopters to the rich nerve endings in the pilots tongue (would they then get the taste of battle?) – Artificial senses has a place in our future.
Which brings us full circle. Currently our wearable technology is either additive (it exists outside of us) or asynchronous (it collects data, but doesn’t feed it back to us immediately). The true promise of wearable technology is to create alternate senses, to augment our reality – and by augmenting our reality with additional sensory data we are becoming synesthetes of artificial senses. This is a very exciting field, in the near future we might see ourself creating new senses, augmenting our current senses, expanding our brain’s processing power and in the end this might mean we’ll be capable of doing superhuman feats – maybe we’ll be required to wear additional senses and use augmented reality, not because it allows us to do a job better, but because it will allow us to do jobs that is impossible for a human to do today.