In May, a group of Japanese researchers announced that they had successfully synthesised the first artificial synapse – a development that could revolutionise machine intelligence and potentially help treat degenerative neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s. But could the implications be even greater for humanity?
Synapses are integral to brain function – neurological switches that facilitate the transmission of electrical or chemical data between neurons, or between neurons and other cells; incredibly complex neurological structures comprised of the dynamic interactions of hundreds of proteins and other chemicals.
These interactions, due to plasticity of synaptic function can strengthen or weaken with time – facilitating, among other things, whether or not information is submitted to short or long-term memory – have a profound impact upon our capacity to learn and reason.
Unlike prior efforts, the synthetic synapse created by Japanese scientists operates in a fashion that mimics the behaviours of organic synapses, being similarly responsive to air pressure and temperature changes, opening up the possibility of an artificial brain that, like ours, can perceive the environment.
As mentioned, a development of this sort has certain very exciting potential applications. Among these may be the capacity to replicate neurological structures could revolutionise research into artificial neural networks.
With further research, it is clear that this technology could be used to replace failing biological synaptic systems. Should the potential inherent in these technologies be realised, within decades, diseases and disorders that cripple the minds of millions of people could be abolished with nanomedical treatments that are universally effective, non-invasive and (ideally) inexpensive.
Moreover, those treatments would likely prove to be minimally ethically contentious; despite effectively turning recipients into cyborgs, the therapeutic benefits are likely to painlessly override any of our deeply-held intuitions about the dehumanising effects of technology.
The threat of the post-human
But what if one were to freely volunteer to undergo such a procedure, despite not suffering from an evident neurological disorder? If the promise inherent in this technology can be kept, it will likely prove possible to consciously and actively augment our cognitive abilities in a material way.
Such an application is not terribly therapeutic – at least not by any intuitive conception of therapy – but it does have some kind of positive utility. Does the mere fact of observing this utility override our intuitions? Should our hypothetical volunteer be allowed to receive the surgery?