In light of some recent developments – artificial limbs that the user can ‘feel,’ and motherf***ing RATS LINKING TO EACH OTHER’S BRAINS – I thought I’d repost this rhapsody on our human-robot future, that I originally wrote for These Gentlemen in 2009.
Will Your Future Children Get Giant Mechas For Christmas? (That They Control With Their Minds?)
We can know that a technology might just be a wave of the future if the Pentagon is dumping Heaps of Cash into its research and development. Such is the case with possibly my personal favorite Holy-Crap-Do-We-Realize-The-Implications emerging technology: brain-computer interfacing.
The idea is very simple. Put electrodes in the brain, on the surface of the brain, or, less invasively, on the ends of nerves. Electrodes read brain signals. Electrodes interpret said signals and tell a machine to do something.
Holy Crap, Do We Realize The Implications?
Yes, folks. Giant Mechas. Also, teledildonics. (Alternate post title: Will your future [adult!] children get teledildos for Chanukah?)
Very recently, a human being was given a robotic hand, which he was able to successfully control, and even reported feeling sensations through it. Even more recently, ProDigits, the first commercially available bionic hand, debuted in Britain (price tag quoted as 57-73 thousand dollars). Prior to this, the most successful experiment was giving a monkey a bionic arm in addition to its intact, functioning one (the functioning one being immobolized with a ‘nerve block’).
Both human and monkey test subjects were able to control the robotic arm with their thoughts; and it seems their brains adapted to the direct neural control fairly quickly – as the monkey article puts it, the monkey’s brain accepted the robot arm into its “neurospace.” In other words, it seems it became just as natural for the monkey’s brain to control the robot arm as it was to control the monkey’s real one. Which makes sense, if you think about it and have ever driven a car – I’m going out on a theoretical limb here, but I would bet we all have the experience of controlling the vehicles we drive directly and subconsciously. When learning to drive, inside our brains, at first it was all “I push pedal down halfway, car goes faster,” but now it’s just “car go faster.” I’m guessing the same natural feeling of body extension is what one would experience, being hooked up to a robot arm.
Currently, the intent is to allow replacement limbs for amputees. A similar but more primitive version of the concept has already been actualized and that allows people to spell words by controlling a cursor on a screen with directed thoughts – or, in a much cooler application, play Pong. But, if one thinks about it, the possibilities are endless and staggering.
First of all, realize that the technology essentially uses the firing of a set of neurons in the user’s brain as a trigger for an electronic/computer function. There is no limitation to what that function is. It may be natural to think of using one’s arm-twitch brain signals to twitch a robot arm, but a computer could just as easily use them to control a robot leg. Or a robot mouse. Or a microwave. Or, yes, to play Pong – or World of Warcraft.
In fact, there’s nothing to prevent a simple system being set up whereby when the user flexes a bicep, a bell rings. Or an alarm goes off. Or, with a little more effort, an electrode gives that user an electric shock. Now, change the trigger signal from “flexes a bicep” to “flexes the muscles in the genitals” or even “brain involuntarily increases blood-flow to genitals” and you have a sexual denial system. Or, in a version less attractive to scary fundamentalists and clever fetishists, one could set up a system whereby when the user gets turned on, a small capsule imbedded in their bloodstream releases Viagra to give them some help. (Please note that Viagra is known to have an arousing effect on females, as well.)
Let’s keep pushing. If you can make any detectable signals from the brain equal anything that a computer can make happen in reality, what can’t you do? You could potentially send an email to a friend or update your Twitter – while walking down the street and seeming to do absolutely nothing at all (all you do is think the right commands, and your mobile device does it without leaving your pocket). You could potentially control your own limbs with your thoughts – an application being considered by researchers, for the purpose of restoring limb usage to people with nerve damage, but which could also be used to do stuff like make your eyes point opposite directions or vomit on command (if you so desired) or deliver yourself an internal shot of insulin if you have a diabetic attack. And you could, potentially, drive a car without using your hands or feet – or without being in the car. Or without being in the same hemisphere as the car.
Which brings me to the giant mechas, a.k.a. neurorobots. Staples of Japanese manga and anime for decades, these massive war-bots allow a tiny, well-trained individual to fight Extreme Battles while looking Damn Awesome doing it. If we could build such a machine – which, considering our struggles with mobile robots, could be a ways off, admittedly – then with an advanced brain-computer interface, a soldier could control it directly through brain signals, without joysticks or keyboards. The soldier could control it from a remote war room. The soldier could control it while it flies into outer space. Yes, folks, the soldier of the future might be… a video gamer.
(Actually, the soldier of today might already be a video gamer, what with drone planes and robot bomb-sniffers. But we’re talking remote-inhabited mobile infantry here, not support and artillery.)
I predict a geek sport in the eventual future in which teams create their own weird mechas, dressed up like Evangelions or the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, control them as a team (Bobby’s thoughts move the legs, Jenny’s thoughts fire the cannon) and battle them in arenas.
But that is only the beginning – I mentioned teledildonics, right? – because so far I have only talked about one-way, inside-out brain-computer interfacing.
The other way – going from outside in – is also under early development. Scientists have been able to make elementary recordings of what a cat’s and a human’s eyes have seen, and a technology calledBrainPort allows visual signals to be sent to a blind person’s brain (similar to a cochlear implant for the hearing-impaired), amongst other applications.
These two technologies are complementary. One lets you control a computer and, by extension, anything a computer can control; the other lets a computer control, or least activate, your sensory experiences. Put them together, and what do you get? Forget controlling a giant mecha. Try being a giant mecha.
Imagine this giant war robot has video cameras, touch sensors, microphones. All we need is the technology to input this sensory information directly into your brain, and you experience the physical existence of the robot. Preferably, your natural sensory input from your real-life body is shut off temporarily; putting on blindfolds and getting in an isolation room would probably be sufficient, but nothing says we couldn’t figure out how to completely prevent you from experiencing the room your natural body is in. (Remember the ‘nerve blocking’ from the monkey-arm experiment?)
I don’t need to guide your imagination too far from there. It is only a few steps from the melding of these two technologies – which, remember, are under development – to all the wildest dreams of science-fiction. The Matrix? Easy (if you have enough computing power). Controlling another person’s body – in fact, switching bodies? Yep.
However, I believe things start getting really crazy when you remember, again, that there is nothing that says the relationship between the natural half of the equation (either the brain’s natural signals when going inside-out, or the natural world when going outside-in) and the computer-controlled half (the robot arm, the computer-generated sensory experience) has to be logical or typical.
Artificial synesthesia is possible; when the computer camera sees the color red, it can make your brain smell potatoes. If the computer camera is installed in the back of your own eye then you can be looped into yourself so that whenever you see the color red, you smell potatoes. Or whenever you taste potatoes, you hear the entirety of an Irish jig. Or whenever you hear an Irish jig, you automatically become aroused. Or whenever you become aroused, you’re suddenly, as far as your personal sensory reality is concerned, in the jungle, complete with visuals, smells, and the sensation of being strangled by an anaconda. (I’m sure it’s somebody’s fetish.)
Which brings me to teledildonics. Currently, as in that article, teledildonic technology is limited to stuff like the Sinulator, a pair of sex toys that simulate what is being done to the other sex toy remotely. Now we all know that sex has been one of the biggest motivators for improvement in technology – the porn industry was one of the first to get into both videotape and the Internet, so doubtless once these technologies start becoming a little closer to reality, baser human desires – and cold hard cash – will motivate all sorts of innovations. (How long until the first bionic penis replacement? Anyone wanna start a betting pool?) Innovations like a sex doll that you control with your thoughts (for yourself or someone else’s perverse enjoyment). Or celebrity porn stars who have sex with a volunteer who doesn’t mind getting Being John Malkovich’d, and a thousand users download themselves into his neurospace, and thus a thousand people have the same sexual experience. Or, scariest of all, direct stimulation of another person’s pleasure centers, which, following sci-fi author Larry Niven’s realistic vision of it, would be a technology so addictive its users die because they neglect to drink water or eat.
Now I don’t want to sound perverted. The applications are, of course, not strictly sexual. You could, for instance, play Super Mario Bros. 3 as Mario – as in, you become two-dimensional and stomp Koopa Troopas and grow to double size when you (YOU) touch a mushroom. If you can hook up your brain-interfacing computers to a network and thus to other people’s computers, you can have your theme music play in everyone’s heads whenever you enter the room. Or set it up so that if you feel an attraction to someone in the room, and they feel an attraction back, you both instantaneously “know” and can skip the awkward flirtation phase (okay, so that application was sexual). Or have a conversation with someone without speaking out loud – but you can still hear each other’s voices. For that matter, in the experience of you and the person you’re conversing with, you see each other’s mouths moving, and hands gesturing; but the rest of the world perceives two people sitting silently, unmoving – i.e., telepathy. (The military is researching precisely this application for battlefield purposes.) And then there’s whole-body uploading – where you more or less permanently inhabit another physical body, whether artificial or natural, whether looking like a human or like a frog or a anthropomorphic pencil. Basically, things can get weird.
Of course, the potential for abuse and crime is there too, but I’ll leave that to your imagination (or nightmares). I’ll also leave to your imagination the possibilities available when you consider that our perception of time is subjective, and therefore potentially controllable by sufficiently advanced interfacing.
To wrap up on that note, remember that, while all of this is fantastic, and the more out-there possibilities require the invention of some technologies that aren’t even conceived yet, for the most part the difference between where we are now and a world in which a person in Chicago and a person in Paris hook up by inhabiting sex robots on the moon is strictly a matter of degree and of combining technologies (like brain-computer interfacing and the Internet) that are currently separate. This technology is coming fast; I drafted this article in summer 2009, and only had the monkey experiment to refer to at that point. In a year or two, mark my words, once the technology is combined with this one and the motor functions and feedback are refined, people who can afford it (and of course it will get cheaper over time) will have completely undetectable replacement limbs; and it will only be a matter of time after that before some enterprising and slightly insane rich person gets themselves a third arm. So while I’m not saying we’ll be living in Tron anytime soon, don’t be surprised if within a decade or so, Team Mecha Battle Extreme!!! debuts on Japanese TV, or at least most forms of blindness and paralyzation are bypassed and effectively cured.
And to finally end on a wild tangent, this might be why we’ve never discovered intelligent life in the universe – perhaps whenever it gets to a certain point of technological development, a species simply closes up into virtual reality, stops bothering with space exploration, and has perfectly calibrated virtual orgies and tea parties until the end of time.