The Programmer’s Brain


Hermans: My name is Felienne Hermans. I’m going to talk about my book called, “The Programmer’s Brain.” Specifically, we’ll zoom in on the topic of how to read code.

Before we really dive into reading code, and The Programmer’s Brain, I want to take you through my personal history of how I came to study The Programmer’s Brain and how I came to study code reading. We have to go back to the year 2013, in which I started to teach kids, programming, 10, 11, 12-year olds at a community center in my neighborhood, wanted to learn programming. I was like, “Sure kids, I can teach you programming.” I was like, how hard can it be? They’re children. Even though I didn’t know that much about teaching, I figured it was not going to be hard.

What happened then is subconsciously, I started to think back at how I learned programming when I was a kid. This is me programming when I was about 10 years old, behind a big computer. I was really small then, but also computers were really big in the ’90s. When I was learning to program, I wasn’t really going through a programming lesson or a programming tutorial. There were no programming lessons. There were no adults around that really knew programming. I never really took a programming lesson. I learned programming from a book. Maybe some of you of my age, have the same experience that these books weren’t really explanatory books. They just had printed out source coding. This is how I learned programming by reading and figuring stuff out. Ultimately, of course, getting a sense of what those codes mean.

It isn’t just me, many people my age share the same experience of learning programming without a teacher, without going to a programming lesson. As a field, we miss a collective history of what a programming lesson looks like. You might wonder, why is it relevant for code reading? The fact that we don’t really know how to read code directly relates to the fact that we never took lessons. I’ll show you in a bit why that is so related. Because we never really went through a programming lesson as a community, we don’t really know how to shape a lesson. I certainly didn’t know how to shape a lesson. I just let the kids explore. This is something still very visible in our self-image as a community, just let people explore, just let kids explore on their own, they will figure it out.

You still see this vibe very much in programming for kids’ books that you can buy now, so not in the ’90s. Today, if you look at programming books, you see that those are written by people with the same experience. For example, here’s a book, Computer Coding for Kids. The snippet is in Dutch, but there’s an English translation underneath. This says, never be afraid to mess around and experiment. This is very much the

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Brain implants could be the next computer mouse

Solzbacher says DeGray’s typing points to the potential of the technology—he can tap out words much faster than anyone using an EEG headband, for example. “That means you are 10 times faster than anything that is out there,” he says. “Now you can start being productive, and you have performance close to an able-bodied person.”

However, Solzbacher is being financed by people who aren’t only interested in helping paralyzed people. This year his company raised $10 million from investors including the German billionaire Christian Angermayer, who invests widely in psychedelics, longevity treatments, and mental health. In a tweet, Angermayer left no doubt he thinks a general-purpose brain mouse is the ultimate goal: “It’s fundamentally an input-output device for the brain, and it can benefit ALL. We can unlock truly astonishing use cases & I believe Blackrock will be the one to take us there. Ppl will communicate with each other, get work done + even create artwork, directly with their minds.”

Solzbacher says for now, none of Blackrock’s internal plans or projections involve consumer brain implants. Still, he acknowledges that could happen: “I expect there is part of society that may really want it, even though there is nothing wrong with them.” 

I asked Solzbacher whether any able-bodied person had ever requested such a device. He says he’s hasn’t gotten such a request, yet. 

Mixed reality 

Robert “Buz” Chmielewski had his head down in concentration, and because of a screen, he couldn’t see which of two toy-size soccer balls had been placed in the robotic hand he was controlling. Using his thoughts, Chmielewski closed the plastic and metal hand and squeezed the ball. “Pink ball,” he called back. When the researcher swapped it for another, stiffer ball, Chmielewski could sense the change. “Black ball,” he said. 

Chmielewski, 50, got his Utah arrays implanted in 2019, 30 years after a surfing accident in Ocean City, Maryland, left him in a wheelchair. During the two years the experiment lasted (it ended in September), he had more implants put in than any other patient—a total of six, in both hemispheres of his brain. Because of this, he was able to control two robot arms simultaneously. What’s more, three of the probes placed into his sensori­motor cortex sent signals back into his brain, allowing him to receive tactile information from the robots. 

Buz Chmielewski with robot arms
Robert “Buz” Chmielewski, 50, had implants in both hemispheres of his brain. When they were in place, he was able to control two robot arms simultaneously.


Chmielewski was part of a project at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory that’s testing new forms of perception. He also tried out the Microsoft HoloLens headset and used his sense of virtual touch to arrange blocks in virtual space. “If you would have told me three years ago I would be controlling things with my thoughts, I would have said you’re crazy,” Chmielewski said during a recent online presentation. “Some of the applications we are working on have blown my mind.”…

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