In the midst of a gubernatorial debate at Sacramento State University in late 2017, I was asked about the future of the state university system over the coming 20 years.
I was running for governor of California and campaigning, among other things, for people’s right to access better technology that can drastically enhance how we share and store information—and stave off death as we know it.
“I’m not sure there’s going to be a future,” I replied.
That’s because if Elon Musk and other brainwave technology entrepreneurs have their way, brick and mortar colleges will no longer be relevant in the coming few decades. We will be able to download education from computers directly into our brains.
As I began explaining that I believe brainwave technology could dominate much of our formal education system by 2038, I watched the audience stir with skepticism.
But the age of downloading experience and expertise directly into our brain mainframe is coming. So is downloading professional training, including everything from becoming a police officer to practicing medicine or investigative journalism.
For many in the audience, I think that was the first time considering this could become a reality in our lifetime.
But in plenty of instances, brainwave tech is already here. People fly drones using mind-reading headsets. Parkinson’s disease patients can use brain chips to calm shaking attacks. Machine interfaces let people silently communicate mind-to-mind with one another, or with devices.
Brainwave technology works by recording the brain’s thought patterns—configurations of neurons that fire in distinct ways for different thoughts—and replicating those patterns back into the brain via electrical stimulation from a nonbiological device.
The amount of money being poured into electroencephalogram technology and other brainwave science is up in the last few years, especially in the state of California where entrepreneurs have poured a few hundred million dollars into startups. That amount of funding is likely to increase dramatically now that the FDA has created guidelines for regulating brainwave interface technology.
Google, Apple, and Facebook have people on staff to gauge how this type of technology works and will affect the world. Entrepreneurs like Brian Johnson, founder of Los Angeles brainwave tech company Kernel, think this technology will eventually end up inside our heads. Elon Musk has said he believes his Silicon Valley brainwave tech company Neuralink will have a consumer product that lets humans wander the cloud in their minds on the market within 10 years. Lead Google engineer Ray Kurzweil forecasts that we will be able to download educational information into our minds in the near futures.
At my home, the coming brainwave age is a personal issue. I told my wife last year that there’s a significant probability our five- and eight-year-old daughters will be able to download education off the internet by the time they hit college.
I also told my wife that I rather not sock away money every month for our daughters’ college funds like millions of Americans do. My wife is an OB-GYN with four higher education degrees. She disagrees with me, and insists we save.
Our opinions are further complicated by the fact that my wife recently signed an informal pledge promoted by the parents from my our children’s grade school in Marin County, promising our peers to not allow our daughters to have personal phones with internet access until they reach eighth grade.
A high school teacher who supports the project recently emailed me saying she thinks this anti-smartphone commitment should be kept until students reach age 18.
If some parents are afraid of their children having too much screen time, how will they feel about their young adult children’s brains being connected to the cloud 24 hours a day?
As a transhumanist, I have long supported using technology in my body to improve the human experience. If I could have a robotic arm that’s better than my biological arm, I would electively amputate my biological arm and surgically attach the bionic one.
The same goes for my brain. The moment I can afford to improve it via implants and brainwave headsets, I will do it.
To me, the idea of being connected in real time to the cloud sounds amazing. I want Google in my brain, iMaps on demand, and a dictionary always open in my mind. I want to know what the weather is when I wake up, just by thinking about it. I want to communicate directly with my driverless car, home robot, and alarm system. I want to hold conference calls with my colleagues in my mind.
But it’s not just saving for college that brainwave technology challenges: My wife and I discuss whether our eldest daughter should continue with piano lessons. Why play for 10 years to master Mozart’s Fifth Symphony, when my daughter will be able to download how to play it perfectly by the time she’s 25 years old?
My wife insists learning to play the piano is also about learning how to be disciplined. I agree, but I also believe that discipline as a trait will be downloadable in the future, too.
This begs the question: What won’t we be able to download in the future?
No one has the answer to that yet, but already today, we’re able to implant memories in mice that allow them to find food based on a maze they’ve never seen before. I have no doubt that in the coming decades we will be able to download memories of reading entire books on algebra, philosophy, and history. We’ll also be able to download how to swing a baseball bat, perform the Heimlich maneuver, and distinguish a Merlot from a Cabernet.
Many people say they will refuse this technology, and I firmly believe that that is their right.
But once capitalism gets hold of a phenomenon like downloadable education, insights, traits, and experiences, people may have to get downloads in order to be competitive—or compatible—in the job market. A firefighter knowledgeable of the entire history of every fire ever fought will be more valuable than a firefighter who only has his limited career experience.
Tech entrepreneurs and transhumanists like myself are betting in the future we’ll be able to download just about anything our brains can normally do now.
Before we drag and drop
Of course, downloading anything into your brain involves more than just pressing a button. And education is far more than just memorizing text books. Where you go to school and how education is taught—whether it’s an Ivy League university, a small religious college, or even Trump University—can significantly alter how and what you learn.
It also matters who does the teaching: whether it’s a Nobel prize-winning scholar or an inexperienced teacher’s assistant or a boring AI passing on code into your head.
Money will be an issue, too. My wife has asked me if downloading a Columbia University education will be more expensive than a community college download. The answer is likely yes.
But if we’ve learned anything from the internet and college students, it’s that students—and their parents—will try to save money. Illegal downloading of textbooks is ubiquitous. And many students—along with Democratic presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders—think education should be free. Some states have made college free for people with qualifying incomes.
Would a generation of people download the education of free schools instead of paying top dollar for fee-based schools? Again, the answer for most people will probably be yes.
Beyond the price of downloading education and experiences, we do have to consider the costs of hardware, access and and amenities required to get that information into your head in the first place. The brainwave devices available for purchase now are all over the map, from $99.99 for the NeuroSky MindWave Mobile 2 on Amazon to the $19,995.00 Freedom 24D Wireless EEG Headset. None can download education or specific experiences that I know of yet, though some headsets facilitate calm and concentration.
When the tech does come out to download education and experience, it’s likely it will be very expensive at first—maybe even millions of dollars, given the recent scandals that show how much some wealthy parents will pay to have their children get a degree.
But the market for such technology is massive, and I surmise the price of the tech will likely come down quickly as it becomes standard for nearly every person on Earth to download free education and experiences with inexpensive brainwave devices.
There was a time when we were surprised that even the poorest people in the world have cell phones. I think downloading devices will go the same way, and become just as ever-present, sooner than we think.
My wife doesn’t buy the downloading argument yet, especially when it comes to education. But brainwave tech is here to stay, and once it evolves far enough, the possibilities feel endless.
Billions of humans could end up with dozens of PhDs a piece, the mastery of multiple musical instruments, and just about any skill we can think of.
I’ve told my wife I would rather invest our kids’ college savings into the tech industry, with an emphasis on those companies that specialize in brain downloading technology. If I’m wrong, they can always do what she and I did to get through college: take out school loans, and carry debt for decades like most Americans.