Brainstorming new senses

What new senses would you like to have available to you?

Often when new tech­nol­ogy first be­comes widely available, the ini­tial limits are in the col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion, not in the tech­nol­ogy it­self (case in point: the in­ter­net). New sen­sory chan­nels have a huge po­ten­tial be­cause the brain can pro­cess senses much faster and more in­tu­itively than most con­scious thought pro­cesses.

There are a lot of re­cent “proof of con­cept” in­ven­tions that show that it is pos­si­ble to cre­ate new sen­sory chan­nels for hu­mans with and with­out surgery. The most well known and sim­ple ex­am­ple is an im­planted mag­net, which would alert you to mag­netic fields (the trade-off be­ing that you could never have an MRI). Cochlear im­plants are the most widely used hu­man-cre­ated sen­sory chan­nels (they send elec­tri­cal sig­nals di­rectly to the ner­vous sys­tem, by­pass­ing the ear en­tirely), but CIs are de­signed to em­u­late a sen­sory chan­nel most peo­ple already have brain space al­lo­cated to. VEST is an­other ex­am­ple. Similar to CIs, VEST (ver­sa­tile ex­tra-sen­sory trans­ducer) has 24 in­for­ma­tion chan­nels, and uses au­dio com­pres­sion to en­code sound. Un­like CIs, they are not im­planted in the skull but in­stead in­for­ma­tion is re­layed through vibrat­ing mo­tors on the torso. After a few hours of train­ing, deaf vol­un­teers are ca­pa­ble of word recog­ni­tion us­ing the vibra­tions alone, and to do so with­out con­scious pro­cess­ing. Much like hear­ing, the users are un­able to de­scribe ex­actly what com­po­nents make a spo­ken word in­tel­ligible, they just un­der­stand the sen­sory in­for­ma­tion in­tu­itively. Another re­cent in­ven­tion be­ing tested (with suc­cess) is BrainPort glasses, which send elec­tri­cal sig­nals through the tongue (which is one of the most sen­si­tive or­gans on the body). Blind peo­ple can be­gin pro­cess­ing vi­sual in­for­ma­tion with this de­vice within 15 min­utes, and it is unique in that it is not im­planted. The sen­sory in­for­ma­tion feels like pop rocks at first be­fore the brain is able to re­solve it into sight. Niel Har­bis­son (who is col­or­blind) has cus­tom glasses which use sound tones to re­lay color in­for­ma­tion. Belts that vibrate when fac­ing north give peo­ple an sense of north. Bot­tlenose can be built at home and gives a very prim­i­tive sense of echolo­ca­tion. As ex­pected, these all work bet­ter if peo­ple start young as chil­dren.

What are the cra­ziest and coolest new senses you would like to see available us­ing this new tech­nol­ogy? I think VEST at least is available from Kick­starter and one of the in­ven­tors sug­gested that it could be that it could be pro­grammed to trans­mit any kind of data. My ini­tial ideas which I heard about this pos­si­bil­ity are just are senses that some un­usual peo­ple already have or ex­pan­sions on cur­rent senses. I think the real game chang­ers are go­ing to be to­tally knew senses un­re­lated to our cur­rent sen­sory pro­cess­ing. Trans­lat­ing data into sen­sory in­for­ma­tion gives us ac­cess to in­tu­ition and pro­cess­ing speed oth­er­wise un­available.

My ini­tial weak ideas:

  • mass spec­trom­e­ter (uses re­flected lasers to de­ter­mine the ex­act atomic makeup of any­thing and ev­ery­thing)

  • prox­im­ity me­ter (but I think you would be­gin to feel like you had a phys­i­cal aura or field of in­fluence)

  • WIFI or cell signal

  • perfect pitch and perfect north, both su­per easy and only need one chan­nel of in­for­ma­tion (an smart­watch app?)

  • in­frared or echolocation

  • GPS (this would in­volve some se­ri­ous prob­lem solv­ing to figure out what data we should en­code given limited chan­nels, I think it could be done with 4 or 8 chan­nels each as­so­ci­ated with a car­di­nal di­rec­tion)

Some­one work­ing with VEST sug­gested:

  • com­press global twit­ter sen­ti­ments into 24 chan­nels. Will you be­gin to have an in­tu­itive sense of global events?

  • en­code stock­mar­ket data. Will you be­come an in­tu­itive su­per-in­vestor?

  • en­code lo­cal weather data (a much more ad­vanced ver­sion of “I can feel it’s go­ing to rain in my bad knee)

Some re­sources for more in­for­ma­tion: