‘We Have the Technology’ Bumps Up Against the Present Limits of the Human Brain

Have you ever wondered what the little voice inside your head would sound like if you could actually hear it out loud?

Kara Platoni’s trek through innate human perception and natural capabilities starts with the simplicity of the human body. We Have the Technology spends its first five chapters covering how our brains handle the five human senses you learned to name as a child, and then enters interesting territory with sections on time, pain, and emotion. Finally Platoni covers some buzzword-worthy futuristic territory with journeys into virtual and augmented reality, and the possibility that there may be some senses that our brains are capable of, but we simply haven’t discovered yet.

Platoni visits biohackers that are not satisfied with the basic five senses most of us are endowed with, seeking to use inspiration from nature to add abilities and subtle senses to their own arsenal. She interviews scientists working on turning thoughts into speech, and translating scent into memory. She watches as a surgeon operates a robot, relying on sight to guide it instead of touch, and as a scientist prods slices of rat brains under a microscope to see if she can get their disembodied cells to tell time. Throughout We Have the Technology, Platoni interviews her subjects but also jumps firsthand into the experiments and tests they’ve devised as they attempt to understand the human experience, and how various technologies could enhance or extend it.

Perception is at the heart of Platoni’s quest. For example, how do you describe a new taste, one that you’ve never known existed, without using the taste-related words you already know, like sweet, bitter, or sour? This is one of the biggest challenges facing taste research today. Platoni takes part in research experiments designed to see if individuals can taste the essence of fat and calcium. Is tasting these flavors an aspect of our genetic makeup, with some individuals more likely than others to make them out? Or could we all taste them if we only had a word to describe what they’re like?

With Alzheimer’s, the loss of one’s sense of smell is one of the first indicators of the disease. Indeed, scent is closely tied to memory, as anyone who has ever had an old memory erupt to the surface of their conscious mind when they smell a particular scent (or when they read Proust) can attest. Platoni describes a charming scene of a volunteer perfumier in Paris visiting a group of dementia patients and challenging them to identify the pure smells from her small vials, always with the hope of triggering a deeply buried memory. When these moments come, they are so rewarding as the patients are prompted to share their long-forgotten memories.

Have you ever wondered what the little voice inside your head would sound like if you could actually hear it out loud? Researchers at UC Berkeley and elsewhere are working on translating those brain patterns into audible speech. The next step is the jump to thinking an action in your head, and having a prosthetic robotic hand actually do the motion — like reaching out and picking up a mug of tea. [Great progress has already been made in this field, commonly known as brain–computer interface (BCI).]

One of my favorite sections of the book was Platoni’s adventures into time-telling — both on the atomic level and far into the foreseeable future. Have you ever thought about how you experience time? Are you a clock-watcher, or do you just show up to places when you get there and not worry about the hour?

Platoni points out that you don’t even need a brain to tell time in some fashion; plants and even single-celled organisms can tell the difference between night and day, and that’s enough. She notes, “Time is […] a cultural phenomenon, measured through man-made devices” and gives a brief history of how in the 19th century, as societies of the world become more globally-aware and interconnected, the need emerged to get everyone to recognize the same clock. Commerce, communication, and travel depend on a uniform understanding of time and a mutually agreed upon reference point in time and space. Yet our brains are wired to constantly edit time, to sync inputs to various senses that happen at different moments. We need to make sense of what we perceive, and so our brains trick us into being aware of sounds and sights happening at the same time, even though we actually “process” such events in asynchronously.

Going behind the scenes of current technology with Platoni feels like a tease of what’s to come, but it’s fascinating that there are so many projects and experiments going on that she can’t possibly cover them all from start to finish. We may have the technology, but it’s just the beginning of researching how we can extend and augment the limits of human perception. Indeed, there’s so much ground to cover, I hope Platoni will add a new volume to her quest.

RATING 6 / 10