A Moment’s Notice:
Striving for Awareness of Each Moment,
Reflecting on Events of the Moment
Consumers of science fiction know that the world will end with an apocalypse. It’s just a question of what form the cataclysm will take: Sentient machines overthrowing their makers, alien invasion, and the current favored contender, a virus/drug/weapon created by mad/evil/well-meaning scientists which turns your next door neighbor into a zombie or vampire. (Maybe he’ll finally return your power washer before he gnaws off your arm.)
I’ve enjoyed sci-fi since Daddy and I huddled together on the couch to watch “Star Trek” on TV (the original series, the one where the captain had hair, thank you very much). I should add that as a Christian I believe our planet’s current state of affairs will cease precisely when and how our Creator chooses. Still, I think speculation about the end of the world and mankind’s involvement can be useful if it helps us steer clear of senseless unpleasantness.
This brings me to my soapbox du jour: Chips in our heads. I’m not talking about the ones in the noggins of alien abductees or unfortunate incidents involving snack food but real honest-to-goodness computer interfaces in our brains. In the New York Times blog “Bits” writer Nick Bilton describes how the Google Glass eyewear could respond to nonverbal communication such as a nod or wink. But that’s just the beginning:
But don’t expect these gestures to be necessary for long. Soon, we might interact with our smartphones and computers simply by using our minds. In a couple of years, we could be turning on the lights at home just by thinking about it, or sending an e-mail from our smartphone without even pulling the device from our pocket. Farther into the future, your robot assistant will appear by your side with a glass of lemonade simply because it knows you are thirsty.
Mr. Bilton refers to a report in the MIT Technology Review about research at Samsung’s Emerging Technology Lab. Researchers there are working on tablets that can be controlled by a subject wearing an electrode-studded ski cap.
The technology, often called a brain computer interface, was conceived to enable people with paralysis and other disabilities to interact with computers or control robotic arms, all by simply thinking about such actions. Before long, these technologies could well be in consumer electronics, too.
Okay, so far so good. Who can argue with an advancement that would enable a man or woman who lost a limb in Iraq or Afghanistan to resume a semblance of a normal life? But then, as always, things get sticky.
But the products commercially available today will soon look archaic. “The current brain technologies are like trying to listen to a conversation in a football stadium from a blimp,” said John Donoghue, a neuroscientist and director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science. “To really be able to understand what is going on with the brain today you need to surgically implant an array of sensors into the brain.” In other words, to gain access to the brain, for now you still need a chip in your head.
Mr. Bilton goes on to describe the probable evolution of this technology, which will include chip-free interfaces made possible by a complete map of the brain. He quotes Miyoung Chun, a molecular biologist and vice president for science programs at the Kavli Foundation, about the future of conversations between man and his machines:
“The Brain Activity Map will give hardware companies a lot of new tools that will change how we use smartphones and tablets,” Dr. Chun said. “It will revolutionize everything from robotic implants and neural prosthetics, to remote controls, which could be history in the foreseeable future when you can change your television channel by thinking about it.”
(You can read Mr. Bilton’s entire column at http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/disruptions-no-words-no-gestures-just-your-brain-as-a-control-pad/ )
Imagine a future where channel surfing requires nothing more than thinking. Back in the ancient days my family had access to four television networks: NBC, ABC, CBS, and PBS. If we wished to switch from one to the other we had to walk over to the television set and turn a knob. We didn’t skip between shows during commercials because that extra effort wasn’t worth it. Come to think of it, I don’t remember my folks ever watching any network other than NBC.
Now I can access more than 200 channels just by pushing the buttons on my remote. (Whether there’s anything worth watching is a topic for another day.) I’m writing this post on my laptop and when I’m finished I could go online to shop the clearance “aisles” at a favorite store. If I start to wonder about the location of Kazakhstan I don’t have to retrieve the “K” volume of the encyclopedia from the shelf; I’ll ask Mr. Google.
I think I gained five pounds just writing that paragraph.
Technology can be a wonderful servant, but it is a terrible master. If we don’t handle this next wave with care we won’t have to wonder if extinct creatures can be resurrected a la Jurassic Park; we’ll become wooly mammoths ourselves. Thin won’t be in anymore, because the owners of the latest toys will be known by their girth. Call it Revenge of the 500-Lb. Man. Piano-size caskets all around.
Of course, the Wizards of the New might solve this problem by replacing food with pellets that provide just enough nutrition to keep our sedentary bodies functioning. No Chick Fil A Waffle Fries, no chocolate ice cream, no chili dogs, no grits, no butterbeans, no fried okra. Oh, the horror!
As grim as this speculation may be, I think it pales in comparison to my other concern about brain-computer interfaces. I’ll deal with that next time.