Good sci-fi is based on real science. Read about the current science that lead to the technology of The Demon Archives.


Dec 2012

Mind Machine Interfaces – Part 2: 21st Century Conception, Fears, Fiction

Posted by / in Science / 13 comments

In order to be complete, our continued discourse on Mind Machine Interfaces (MMI) must include at least some reference to the ideas, fantasies, and primitive applications of this technology invented in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with special emphasis on their beliefs and perceptions on what was, at that time, a purely theoretical invention.

Long before MMI technology was even believed to be feasible there was a large diversity of opinion on their ethical nature.  Some of the debates were centered on how the unequal distribution of wealth would lead to technocratic discrimination against the poor, while others centered around the definition of humanity.  Many religious groups decried these technologies outright, whereas others opposed them on issues of privacy and a dilution of self identity.  An interesting example of early 21st century thought on this ethical dilemma can be found in one of the most popular “websites” of the era.  While searching on “Reddit” in the Archives, we found an interesting post by someone named Capissen38.  In response to an opinion that the insertion of artificial neurons into the brain would lead to a dilution of self, this “redditor” wrote an excellent piece of imaginative fiction describing his or her perception of the issue.  I quote it here in its entirety should you not have access to the Archives.

You replace a single neuron in your brain with one that functions thousands of times faster than its biological counterpart.

Are you still you? You’d probably argue that you are, and even a significant speed bump in a single neuron is likely to go largely unnoticed by your conscious mind.

Now, you replace a second neuron. Are you still you? Again, yes. You still feel like yourself. You still have the continuity of experience that typically defines individuality. You probably still don’t notice a thing, and indeed, with only a couple of overachieving neurons, there wouldn’t be much to notice.

So, let’s ramp it up. You replace a million neurons in your brain with these new, speedy versions, gradually over the course of several months. Sounds like a bunch, right? Not really; you’ve still only replaced 0.001% of your brain’s natural neurons by most estimates. Are you still you? You may find you’re reading books a teensy bit faster now, and comprehending them more easily. An abstract math concept (say, the Monty Hall problem) that once confused you now begins to make some sense. You’re still very much human, though. You stubbed your toe this morning due to poor reflexes, resulting from a lack of sleep. You briefly felt lonely for a moment. That cute cashier turned you on as much as ever.

But why stop there? You’re feeling pretty good. You embark on a neurological enhancement regimen of two billion fancy new neurons every month for a year. After this time, you’ve got on the order of 24 billion artificial neurons in your head, or about a quarter of your brain. Are you still you? Your feelings and emotions are still intact, as the new neurons don’t somehow erase them; they just process them faster. Or they don’t, depending upon your preference. About half-way through this year, you began noticing profound perceptual changes. You’ve developed a partially eidetic memory. Your head is awash in curiosity and wonder about the world, and you devour Wikipedia articles at a rapid clip. Within weeks you’ve attained a PhD-level knowledge of twenty subjects, effortlessly. You have a newfound appreciation for music- not just classical, but all genres. All art becomes not just a moving experience, but an experience embedded in a transcendental web of associations with other, far-removed concepts. Synesthesia doesn’t begin to cover what you’re experiencing. But here’s the thing; it’s not overwhelming, not to your enhanced, composite brain and supercharged mind. Maybe you’ve subjected yourself to dimethyltriptamine or psilocybin before, and experienced a fraction of this type of perception. But this is very different. It feels so very soft and natural, like sobering up after a long night out.

You reason (extraordinarily quickly at this point, I might add), that since you don’t seem to have lost any of your internal experience, you should go whole hog, and replace the rest of it. After all, at this point, everyone else is, too. It’s getting harder to find work for someone who’s only a quarter upgraded. Over the next three years you continually add new digital neurons as your biological ones naturally die out. Are you still you? Following this, you are a genius by all traditional measures. Only the most advanced frontiers of mathematics and philosophy give you pause. Everything you’ve ever experienced, every thought that was ever recorded in your brain (biological or otherwise) is available for easy access in an instant. You became proficient in every musical instrument, just for the hell of it. Oh sure, you still had to practice; approximately ten minutes for each instrument. You’re still a social creature, though, and as such, you still experience sadness, love, nostalgia, and all other human emotions. But as with a note played on a Stradivarius violin as opposed to a simple electronic function generator, your emotions now have such depth, so many overtones. Your previous, unenhanced self could not have comprehended them. You are a god, but with the curiosity of a child. Though never religious, the phrase “born again” comes to your dizzyingly fast and complex mind.

Years pass. The same medical technology that allowed your neurons to be seamlessly replaced, aided and accelerated by a planetful of supersavants, has replaced much of your biological body as well. You’re virtually immortal. Only virtually, of course, because speeding toward Earth at a ludicrous velocity is a comet the size of Greenland. There is general displeasure that the earth will be destroyed (and just after we got smart and finally cleaned her up!), but there’s a distinct lack of existential terror. Everyone will be safe, because they are leaving. How does a civilization, even a very clever one, evacuate billions of people from a planet in the space of years? It builds some very large machines that circle the sun, and it uploads everyone to these machines. Uploads? People? Why sure, by now everyone has 100% electronic minds. If you’ve ever worked with a virtualized computer, or played a video game ROM from a long-defunct console on your new PC, you understand the concept already. These minds are simply software; in fact, they always were. Only now, they’re imminently accessible, and more importantly, duplicable.

Billions of bits of minds of people are beamed across the solar system to where the computers and their enormous solar panels float, awaiting their guests. Of course, just as with your neuronal replacements all those years ago, this is a gradual process. As neurons are transferred, their counterparts in your skull are disabled. The only difference you feel is a significant lag, sometimes on the order of minutes, due to the millions of miles of distance between one half of your consciousness and the other. Eventually, the transfer is complete, and you wake up in a place looking very familiar. Virtual worlds, mimicking the earth to nanometer resolutions, have already been prepared. In the real world, gargantuan fleets of robots, both nano- and megascopic, are ready to continue building new computers, and spacecraft, and new robots, as humankind prepares to seed the cosmos with intelligence. We haven’t achieved faster-than-light travel, but our immortal minds and limitless virtual realities make space and time irrelevant.

Are you still you?

Only one way to find out.

– Capissen38 2012

Obviously the imagined future here described has not come to pass, but is effective in demonstrating the great thought and interest on the topic of MMI, as well as sharing one of  the common fears of the era.  A similar excerpt from the Archives of a site called Wikipedia lists out the many ethical concerns of the time with regards to MMI:

Important topics in the neuroethical debate are:

  • obtaining informed consent from people who have difficulty communicating,
  • risk/benefit analysis,
  • shared responsibility of BCI teams (e.g. how to ensure that responsible group decisions can be made),
  • the consequences of BCI technology for the quality of life of patients and their families,
  • side-effects (e.g. neurofeedback of sensorimotor rhythm training is reported to affect sleep quality),
  • personal responsibility and its possible constraints (e.g. who is responsible for erroneous actions with a neuroprosthesis),
  • issues concerning personality and personhood and its possible alteration,
  • therapeutic applications and their possible exceedance,
  • questions of research ethics that arise when progressing from animal experimentation to application in human subjects,
  • mind-reading and privacy,
  • mind-control,
  • use of the technology in advanced interrogation techniques by governmental authorities,
  • selective enhancement and social stratification, and
  • communication to the media.

Emory University neuroscience professor Michael Crutcher has expressed concern about BCIs, specifically ear and eye implants: “If only the rich can afford it, it puts everyone else at a disadvantage.” Clausen concluded in 2009 that “BCIs pose ethical challenges, but these are conceptually similar to those that bioethicists have addressed for other realms of therapy”. Moreover, he suggests that bioethics is well-prepared to deal with the issues that arise with BCI technologies. Haselager and colleagues pointed out that expectations of BCI efficacy and value play a great role in ethical analysis and the way BCI scientists should approach media. Furthermore, standard protocols can be implemented to ensure ethically sound informed-consent procedures with locked-in patients.

Researchers are well aware that sound ethical guidelines, appropriately moderated enthusiasm in media coverage and education about BCI systems will be of utmost importance for the societal acceptance of this technology. Thus, recently more effort is made inside the BCI community to create consensus on ethical guidelines for BCI research, development and dissemination.

It is quite peculiar that there was such worry over non-existent technology that ethicists and scientists could devote their entire careers to discussions of the potential impacts of MMI.  Perhaps it is because MMI had been utilized so profusely in the literature and media of the time, with the creative results filling the whole spectrum of hopes and fears.  From another Archived “Wikipedia” article:

Brain implants are now part of modern culture but there were early philosophical references of relevance as far back as René Descartes.

In his 1638 Discourse on the Method, a study on proving self existence, Descartes wrote that a person would not know if an evil demon had trapped his mind in a black box and was controlling all inputs and outputs. Philosopher Hilary Putnam provided a modern parallel of Descartes argument in his 1989 discussion of a brain in a vat, where he argues that brains which were directly fed with an input from a computer would not know the deception from reality.

Popular science fiction discussing brain implants and mind control became widespread in the 20th century, often with a dystopian outlook. Literature in the 1970s delved into the topic, including The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton, where a man suffering from brain damage receives an experimental surgical brain implant designed to prevent seizures, which he abuses by triggering for pleasure.

Fear that the technology will be misused by the government and military is an early theme. In the 1981 BBC serial The Nightmare Man the pilot of a high-tech mini submarine is linked to his craft via a brain implant but becomes a savage killer after ripping out the implant.

Perhaps the most influential novel exploring the world of brain implants was William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. This was the first novel in a genre that came to be known as “cyberpunk”. It follows a computer hacker through a world where mercenaries are augmented with brain implants to enhance strength, vision, memory, etc. Gibson coins the term “matrix” and introduces the concept of “jacking in” with head electrodes or direct implants. He also explores possible entertainment applications of brain implants such as the “simstim” (simulated stimulation) which is a device used to record and playback experiences.

Gibson’s work led to an explosion in popular culture references to brain implants. Its influences are felt, for example, in the 1989 roleplaying game Shadowrun, which borrowed his term “datajack” to describe a brain-computer interface. The implants in Gibson’s novels and short stories formed the template for the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic and later, The Matrix Trilogy.

The Gap Cycle (The Gap into): In Stephen R. Donaldson’s series of novels, the use (and misuse) of “zone implant” technology is key to several plotlines.

Pulp fiction with implants or brain implants include the novel series Typers, film Spider-Man 2, the TV series Earth: Final Conflict, and numerous computer/video games.

Ghost in the Shellanime and manga franchise: Cyberbrain neural augmentation technology is the focus. Implants of powerful computers provide vastly increased memory capacity, total recall, as well as the ability to view his or her own memories on an external viewing device. Users can also initiate a telepathic conversation with other cyberbrain users, the downsides being cyberbrain hacking, malicious memory alteration, and the deliberate distortion of subjective reality and experience.

In the video games PlanetSide and Chrome, players can use implants to improve their aim, run faster, and see better, along with other enhancements.

The Deus Ex video games series addresses the nature and impact of human enhancement with regard to a wide variety of prosthesis and brain implants. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, set in 2027, details the impact on society of human augmentation and the controversy it could generate. Several characters in the game have implanted neurochips to aid their professions (or their whims). Examples are of a helicopter pilot with implanted chips to better pilot her aircraft and analyse flight paths, velocity and spatial awareness, as well as a hacker with a brain-computer interface that allows direct access to computer networks and also to act as a ‘human proxy’ to allow an individual in a remote location to control his actions. The game raises the question of the downsides of this kind of augmentation as those who cannot afford the enhancements (or object to getting them) rapidly find themselves at a serious disadvantage against people with artificial enhancement of their abilities.

The creative imaginings of these early authors and writers are impressive in their scope and magnitude.  The reality of MMI is not nearly as glorious or fearful as they foresaw.  Their writings did serve to inspire many scientists to research and attempt to develop functional MMI.  Unfortunately, the state of computing and biotechnology before the War did not allow the exploration of these concepts beyond simple experimentation.  These early experiments, however, did provide the basic knowledge and foundation for the work continued by Glaucus scientists after the War.

  • Morgenstern

    I’m always interested in the practical faults that exist within the sci-fi goodies, so lets look at two that don’t usually come up when considering MMI: noise and infection.

    Most schemes for reading neurons involve the use of fields that, from certain vantage points in the EM spectrum will stand out against the background LIKE A BLAZING STAR, and not just a star revealing where you are, but one that announces with stunning clarity, “shoot here for headshot” In any sort of combat use you’re going to want to give some thought to how to minimize field bleed. You might be able to make the whole helmet a Faraday cage with transparent conductor films over the visor, but other strategies include moving the detectors closer to the signal-source with implants and, much like medical imaging now, you might want to drink some sort of nasty (passive) marker concoction that helps the sensor trace brain activity with weaker fields.

    Second any changes to the brain, be it implanted artificial neurons, or a network of jack studs represents a compromise of the existing firewalls of the brain. Just by being made of different materials than the greasy sponge naturally found between your ears you’re subject to absorption of signals you wouldn’t normally be susceptible to. Like hearing radio signals with your fillings ;). Humans don’t generally worry about EMP effects. People with jacks should… Looking at the ‘Are you still you?’ essay above, if 5% of your brain is made up new neurons that are compromised or deliberately designed to hijack the host, the question changes from “are you still you?” to “does your new master even allow you to realize you’ve been a slave for months now?” You had better have an EXTREME level of trust when you allow someone to literally put things in your brain. Like, a lot more trust than is ever typically healthy in dealing with governments ;).

    • Have you read to the most current comic page, btw?

      We’re actively heading to dealing with these and other issues with MMI. I’ll avoid spoiling them, but it should be interesting.

      • Morgenstern

        Sorry, I’m not caught all the way up yet. Soon, hopefully :).
        One thing to ponder – rather than tapping the network at the head, where the signals are all pretty closely packed, positioning some detectors down the length of the spine would let you pick out certain gross motor signals after they’ve already differentiated themselves (like where the signals to the arms peel of from the spine. Consider also that the skull is actually the last place to hear about it when your reflexes fire… Sub-processors in the spine have already handed out critical orders and are just sending a messenger up to the brain as a courtesy by the time the action is all over :). If your detectors are up there, they get the message late too.

        • That’s a fair point as well. Part of it will depend on what I decide to make the outcome of any MMI be. Do you even need to physically move your limbs to make the suit move, etc.

          My medical background has already and will continue to be helpful. :)

          I look forward to hearing your thoughts once you catch up. You’ll have some more concrete idea of where we’re trying to go with this, probably :D

          • Morgenstern

            One style of humanoid ‘armor’ I’ve tinkered with in fiction is to ‘pod’ the operator in the torso and trigger the same paralysis that protects us while we’re dreaming – where the mind can expresses/call for the full range of bodily movements but the body doesn’t carry them out (though in this case, the machine does carry them out). Neatly the neural hooks to do that without invasive chemistry are already in place. Gives a whole new meaning to “sleeper hold” :D. The scale of such machines tends to be a little bit larger though.

            On the ‘do you need to move you limbs?’ front, here’s an even spookier question: Do you need the limb at all? If you’ve lost one (say, in combat…) does that actually impair your performance in any way…?
            Given where I left off, I do need to get caught up!

          • ;) That’s all I can say.

          • NickDA

            Buahahaha… I love this guy… @disqus_gzmdxFg7Za:disqus you are going to really enjoy where we take this story… all I can say for now…

          • Morgenstern

            Something to look into from a medical perspective: When you lose a leg, even if you replace it with a flawlessly functional (mechanical) prosthetic limb, you’ve lost more than just a thing you walk on… you’ve lost one of your major blood cell factories in the femur marrow. Your ability to recuperate from blood loss (something that happens to combatants a lot…) is going to suffer for it. We don’t normally think of the leg as having major organs in it… but…

          • Actually, you’re slightly wrong there :P The long bones are important in children, but in adults it shifts to the pelvis, spine and sternum.

            Source: am medical student. And wikipedia:

          • Morgenstern

            Excellent. Hadn’t followed up on it, but that was the product of a brainstorming session on other possible drawbacks of traditional cyberpunk cybernetics :). The point being mostly that drawbacks and tradeoffs are more interesting than advantages. “This will make to 5 times stronger” is great, but the price tag is where the story is.

          • Man, you sound so fun! Like I want to have brainstorming sessions with you on these topics :D Are you writing something yourself or do you just like thinking about it?

            And I agree, the drawbacks and costs are always more interesting. We’ll see a lot of that in TDA in the future.

    • NickDA

      Holy crap… a comment and a reader of the science pages… whoa… mind = blown. :D

      • Henrik Svantesson

        They’re the best pages, aren’t they?