Sunday, March 20, 2011

Calculator implants in the brain could happen today

The problem with our memory is that it is fuzzy, and it changes.

My grandma memorized a poem in her youth. The older she got, the more unmemorized that poem became. It was cute and endearing when she recited most of the poem in a somewhat jumbled fashion, but by the time I heard it, it was never a verbatim recitation. I'm sure she had that poem completely memorized for probably about twenty years of her life, before her memory started to unwind itself.

As far as I know, every single part of our brains is subject to change. That's cool, because that means that it's theoretically possible to rewire our brains in any way that we want to, and change ourselves in any way that we want to. That's uncool, though, because that means that nothing is ever for certain, and that everything in our heads may change at any time.

Here's a way to test this yourself. Count backward from 100 to 1 by threes, so 100, 97, 94, 91, and so on until you get to one. Do it again and again, and you'll notice something. You end up with a different ending number almost every time. We've all been adding and subtracting by threes since we were about five, so why can't we do a relatively simple math task like that perfectly every time? It's because no part of our brain is fixed and permanent.

I heard once that math is the most useless skill to have. Sure, it's important that 1% of our population knows math really well, but in reality, most of us don't need to know math at all. If you really need a math equation solved, you can just google it, and if you really need an answer to a math problem that google can't solve, you can just ask someone who's good in math.

The problem with math is that you have to spend years memorizing a bunch of boring stuff just to have math be any use at all, and we have very simple calculators with reliable formulas inside that bypass the need for any math memorization and really make the need for learning math obsolete.

But, what if our brains all included an unchangeable calculator? Maybe math wouldn't be so useless then.

If we could just think and instantly figure out the probability of beating the dealer in blackjack with our current hand, then maybe math would be worthwhile.

If we had math so integrated into our brains, that we could shoot pool, and know for 100% certain where the balls were going to go, then maybe math would be worthwhile.

If we could go to the grocery store and instantly be able to figure out which stuff is the cheapest per ounce, then maybe math would be worthwhile.

Calculator implants in the brain should be relatively easy to do. They're already implanting computers into the brains of paraplegics to allow them to move stuff with their thoughts. And I'm sure that a basic calculator is much, much less complicated than wireless robot technology, because even a relatively complex calculator is only about 5 kilobytes of information. That's just as much information as is in the text of this article, which is not much. You'd probably only need to connect the tiny calculator in and out of the brain with a couple of connections, which means it would be a relatively simple surgery.

Why a calculator? Because it's the best combination of simplicity and usefulness in something that we could program and permanently put in our heads

The cool thing will be once our brains start to rewire themselves around the implanted calculator. Then we could do some truly amazing things, that would only be indirectly related to math but would use the brain math calculator heavily. Pro golfers could hit holes in one almost every time. Bowling wouldn't be the super frustrating sport that it is today. Poker would be elevated to a whole new level. You'd be able to tell if a piece of furniture would fit through a door before you moved it up the stairs. You'd never accidentally mess up a recipe you were doubling. And, finally, math would get some credit.

All of this can happen with something the size of a piece of glitter in our heads.

Boring math calculations for the size of a brain calculator:

  • A Blu-ray disc weighs about 20 grams, has a surface area of 113 cm^2, and contains about 50 gigabytes of information. 
  • You can make a simple calculator with 5 kilobytes of information. 
  • With current technology, it would be possible to make a calculator that weighs 1.9 micrograms and is 32x32 micrometers wide. 
  • That's a square where one side is a little smaller than the width of your hair, or like a super small piece of glitter, so basically this calculator would be so small you couldn't see it, unless it was glittery.

Photo purchased from istockphoto.


  1. I'm not particularly fond of losing my memory OR my brain wiring. Sure I see it coming. I dread it's arrival.

  2. your simplifying this way too much. First of all, we may be able to attach a calculator to our brains, but there is much more complexity in actually being able to control it and interpret its answers. We would somehow have to find a way to communicate with the calculator. Also, a simple calculator would not allow us to just look at something and be able to measure it or do something perfect each time. your assuming that we that the calculator would be able to give us all of the variables without us actually having to measure anything. Good idea though.

  3. Thanks for the comment! And, that's a great question. What would it take to hook up the calculator to the brain and be able to pass variables to it.

  4. If your going to take the risk, money, and time to get an implant...why not just get a full blown computer with wifi access implanted directly into your brain. The best way of making this work is that the computer itself piggy backs on your senses so basically it can gather input from the environment before you even have a chance to process it decide what to do and then transfer that data directly into your brain. In essence your brain wouldn't have to do much just receive the data being supplied by the auxiliary computer. It's like google glasses but in your brain.


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