Monday, September 27, 2010

The modern future: brain prostheses

See MIT's Technology ReviewBrain Coprocessors.

Now, this has some disturbing aspects, I won't deny -- particularly if you couple it with some of the latest schemes coming out of DARPA. But the fact is that we're already well along the path toward the integration of organic and mechanical, as we learn to attach devices to nerve endings, provide paraplegics with exoskeletons, and so forth -- and so far, no Borg-like "assimilation" seems imminent.

What's intriguing about the idea of a brain prosthesis is just the way it refocuses what's been happening for some time now anyway, with the Internet in general, Google in particular -- something foreseen perhaps in the title of Vannevar Bush's famous and prescient essay 60 some years ago: "As We May Think". Consider, for example, how we do think now when we're trying to remember something -- we know we know it, we just don't have it, and we typically perform a kind of algorithmic search of our memory's contents by riffling through as many associations with "it" as we can think of, hoping that this will flush out other associations, one of which will be the "it" we're looking for. And now consider how quickly we -- or at least I -- resort to Google to do much the same process for us, whenever we're at a keyboard -- typing in some random associations with a term or concept we're looking for, and letting Google flush out the thing itself, which it so often does with an ease and accuracy that we can't match. We don't need brain-reading helmets, in other words, to experience this extension of memory into the cloud of the global network. And when you think, too, of how we're not only internalizing that cloud, we're also externalizing more and more of our selves -- our memories, thoughts, wants, dreams, activities, etc. -- in the burgeoning social networks of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., then it becomes apparent we're already engaged in a cultural process that is tending to blur the boundaries between self and environment, mental and physical, internal and external worlds.

It took a while for people to become reconciled to the idea that human beings were just another species of animal. But ever since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, at least, and from Metropolis to the Terminator flics, we've been culturally haunted by a fear of the machine vs. the human. Ironic if we're now being gradually forced to the conclusion that that distinction too is dissolving. This post on "explanatory models" has more.


  1. The DARPA geeks--mostly from Steinford U, I believe--test some of their automated gear out in the desert near Barstow (the USAF and Navy test drones around there as well). It's somewhat impressive. They have auto-Hummers that they can pilot with joysticks--or set to auto-pilot-- and have achieved near complete control and accuracy--they can pilot them in traffic as well for short distances, reportedly (probably breaking the law...most human drivers would probably want to know whether there was a bot next to you...which could with one software glitch go spinning out of control).

    The cranial-ware is just the next step toward complete automation. And there are neurokinetic devices already in use--handicapped people can interface with a computer and issue basic commands, turn on lights, TV, etc. The Matrix awaits. Or is it WWIII, waged by bots, initially at least.

  2. The Terminator flicks were pretty well-done, and Ahhnuld at least played a believable character--genocidal monster-bot! But ...sort of a right-wing fantasy, m. Most techie types rooted for the Terminator.

    Blade Runner--based on a PK Dick story ("Do Androids Dream" ...)--featured an interesting and philosophical take on the machine-human interface, the sci-fi standard theme. Replicants are a bit more complex than Terminator bots, and if/when something like a Singularity ever occurs, earthlings might have to deal with Blade Runner sorts of issues.

  3. Well, he was only a monster-bot in the first one, right? Subsequently he was a good bot, but still a bot, which certainly played to his strengths.

    Good point about Blade Runner and the moral complexities of embodied AI generally. Or just AI?


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