Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How Many Cyborgs Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

How many cyborgs does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Richard Greenhill, Hugo Elia, Shadow Robot Company.

by Louis Shalako

How many cyborgs does it take to change a light bulb?

The quality of the answers that we get depends on the quality of the questions we ask.

Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.

But if we ask a smart question, we might get a smart answer.

Will we be assimilated by the human-machine interfaces which researchers are presently contemplating.

“Thus far, the main purpose for developing brain-computer interfaces has been to allow amputees and those who suffer from paralysis to mentally control a mobile robot or robotic prosthesis. They have already made possible some remarkable feats, such as partial restoration of hearing in the deaf, direct brain control of a prosthesis, implanting false memories in a rat, and downloading a rat’s memory of how to press a lever to get food and then uploading the memory after the original memory has been chemically destroyed. If this sounds like science fiction, consider that scientists have already moved beyond the interface technology and into nanoscale wiring implanted in synthetic tissue. A joint MIT, Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital research team led by Robert Langer, Charles Lieber and Daniel Kohane developed a technique for growing synthetic biological tissue on a substrate containing biocompatible, nanoscale wires. This announcement came seven weeks after the announcement in London of the first-ever successful implantation of a synthetic organ, a fully functional trachea grown from the patient’s own stem cells, work led by the pioneering researcher Paolo Macchiarini. And if scientists can implant wiring, then, in principle, they can turn the body or any part of it into a computer. But while most people have no problem with prosthetic limbs, even those directly actuated by the brain, nor with pacemakers or cochlear implants, people may feel uncomfortable becoming part machine. At what point does the interface between body and machine dissolve? When bodies can be made part machine, is it necessary to redefine personhood? Will people all be assimilated?”

Here’s the answer to that last question: no.

That’s right, the answer is no.

What will happen is that the human race will assimilate all of the new technology. I really don’t think we will let it eat us or enslave us. We’re a little too practical a species for that.

Google just bought Boston Dynamics, maker of the famous Big Dog. Google, along with other companies, is heavily into artificial intelligence research. With modern brain imaging and mapping, at some point in these studies, hardware and software applications will be able to ‘read’ a thought.

That would be useful for airport security. Imagine an oblong or rectangular frame that you walk through much like a metal detector. It reads your brain and it checks a few things, like if you’ve been recently thinking of a criminal or anti-social act. Biometrics will detect if you are nervous. Biometrics will check your retina to match up with your records. As far as airport security goes, a lot of folks wouldn’t have a problem with that, (as long as it doesn’t take forever, right?) and as long as it’s not too invasive, and if it serves a legitimate need, they might be able to live with it.

But if brain waves can be read and interpreted, they can also be recorded. They can be stored, and downloaded, and if the machine is accurate enough, it might even be admissible as evidence in a court of law.

As a benign example, (and yet most of us are immediately thinking of criminals cases) a plane crashes and one of the victims is identified solely by the retinal and brain scans made prior to take-off.

This is of some interest, for his surviving friends and family at least know for sure what happened. He or she can be presumed dead, and while the author acknowledges the trauma and grief for the friends and family, it is also necessary to provide through the provisions of the last will and testament for the survivors and heirs.

In that sense it’s a kind of benign use of artificial intelligence, and the ability of a machine to record someone’s last thoughts might be of great comfort—or a great tragedy, depending on what those thoughts were. Most likely the ‘average’ passenger probably did think fond thoughts about friends and family in the immediate time period.

The families might be comforted by having a recording of such thoughts. It is also true that some might be denied boarding privileges, and some potential criminal or anti-social acts would be prevented by detection before they could be brought into action.

It’s not immediately obvious to this writer how the average person would end up like the Borg, with no real mind of their own and end up powerless thralls to a universal computer system that has taken on a consciousness of its own. Some human agent would have to make that happen, possibly a mistake in coding somewhere along the line, unintentional or otherwise.

Computer-brain interfaces are making great leaps.

Scientists have learned how to plant false memories in a mouse, and the author also recently saw a story where scientists used the mind or brain of a human, and they controlled a mouse’s tail by thought alone.

“Scientists haven’t yet found a way to mend a broken heart, but they’re edging closer to manipulating memory and downloading instructions from a computer right into a brain.

Researchers from the Riken-M.I.T. Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took us closer to this science-fiction world of brain tweaking last week when they said they were able to create a false memory in a mouse.

The scientists reported in the journal Science that they caused mice to remember receiving an electrical shock in one location, when in reality they were zapped in a completely different place. The researchers weren’t able to create entirely new thoughts, but they applied good or bad feelings to memories that already existed.”

Maybe in a hundred years, if someone can control your neighbour, he can control you, and this doesn’t necessarily need hard-wiring once we comprehend all the machine aids people are going to be hooking up to their brains and their bodies in the very near future.

We’ve all seen the runner with the springy artificial legs and carbon-fibre feet.

But being able to read a brain might also lead to the ability to ‘reframe’ someone’s brain.

We can rebuild him.
The most positive use of the new technology would be medical—they might cure mental illnesses, they might cure brain dysfunctions of any kind. They might be able to restore at least some memories, anything that might have been recorded of his life prior to losing his memory.

Let’s say that happens to a guy, he was in a car accident. Let’s call him Stan. He went into a coma, and lost all his memories. He has amnesia.

Stan could at least know that he really was Stan! Fragmentary memories might be restored to him, like shots from the security camera in his apartment building, his shopping list and his favourite grocery store would all be recorded somewhere in a vast database. Pictures of his wife and kids, his dog, and his mom and dad would be uploaded. He could be retrained by having relevant skills and experiences of his employment downloaded or uploaded to his brain, whichever way the reader prefers to express it.

This particular technology could obviously also be abused.

Conceivably, if Stan was killed, and yet his brain was successfully downloaded wirelessly  before ‘signal degradation’ became too pronounced, Stan could be input into a machine intelligence that already existed. The machine intelligence would take care of all autonomic chores, making the legs go and providing the body with the equivalent of oxygen. In his new status that’s electrical power for Stan as a purely electronic entity will no longer require oxygen, food or water.

Stan would be riding around in Big Dog’s head and yet this author thinks that if Stan still had all his memories, it would be seamless enough. Essentially we have transplanted the brain of a man into the body of a pig, which has always been a big dream of science. (The author is kidding. – ed.)

In the future, if all or most babies are implanted with an ID chip upon birth, whether natural or otherwise, then all that would have to be done is to recover that chip from Stan’s body, or recover that code sequence, and Stan’s body, let’s call it ‘Big Dog,’ has essentially become Stan in fact.

That’s because our airport security robot now reads the ID chip, identifies the dog-like robot as ‘Stan,’ the guy who got killed but didn’t die because his brain was downloaded into the robot previously known as Big Dog.

With artificial intelligence, a vast database and number crunching ability, Stan’s whole life will flash before the airport security robot’s virtual eyes and he will either be admitted or denied entrance.

We have transplanted the brain of a man into the head of a pig.
The neuroplasticity of the brain makes it possible to learn new tasks. Future human beings will have bumps in different places on their brains!

But what bout the neuroplasticity of the mind, once freed from biological concerns?

It sounds funny, but it’s true. Stan is going to have to get used to a few new ideas, not least of which is that he no longer has a physical body but now resides in a machine. He might not have to unlearn a few tasks, for they will always be with him as memories, but he will have to learn a few new ones.

What use is the ability to cook for Stan? He can make dinner for his family, that task can stay in his biological brain. But the machine’s little doggy legs can carry him, and they are governed by the machine part of his makeup. It is the interface between biological and electronic brain that will really have to grow, and to adapt, and to learn. There’s a lot more to it than an old-fashioned prosthetic arm, where patients would twitch a shoulder or bicep muscle to close the fingers so they could pick up a knife or fork and eat their dinner. The human brain learns that task well enough so that people no longer have to consciously do it, they just reach and pick up the object without thinking.

Stan has to get used to a whole new way of living, and he also has to get used to a whole new way of looking at life. Stan will redefine our ideas of what a person is, what consciousness is, and what life and death is.

We will have detached consciousness and personhood from the physical body and set it free of those limitations. Once you have removed all biological processes from Stan, and Stan from any need for them, all you have to do is maintain the machine, change the batteries or charge them up, and Stan can go on indefinitely. As long as backup copies of Stan exist, he could essentially live forever. Once a record of his mind has been made, we could make endless copies of Stan.  Stan could exist in two places at once, and the two Stans could be linked in realtime so that they could enjoy two separate experiences, even at the same time.

Stan might be at a Leaf’s game in Toronto, enjoying his day off, and his machine-double could be in Paris negotiating a business deal, and both Stan’s could be aware of each other. Stan would be multi-talking, and muttering and talking to himself, but he would be able to cope with it.

Without the need to regulate the autonomous nervous system, the part of Stan’s mind that was subconscious and operated his physical body for him is no longer necessary, however, he now has machine resources at his disposal. He has a memory bank, and his consciousness has essentially all the time in the world to learn how to use it. Without cell death, without aging, with more than one of him running around, Stan would just keep getting smarter and smarter.

More seriously, Stan’s new life need not be a bleak hell of isolation and sensory deprivation. Let’s give him a more human body, one with bipedal locomotion.

Will he be able to give and receive affection? His new body will need periodic cleaning. Would he enjoy a hot shower, that most basic of modern luxuries?

One might think so, especially with the development of ‘haptics,’ in this case some nice new e-skin.

“The development of electronic skin, or ‘e-skin,’ brings the next milestone in the continuing symbiosis—and perhaps melding—of man and machine.”

“The thin new material may soon imbue robotics with a more sensitive touch while wallpapering much of the world with touch-screen capability.”

"With the interactive e-skin, we have demonstrated an elegant system on plastic that can be wrapped around different objects to enable a new form of human-machine interfacing."

Stan could not just give the wife and kids a hug but experience it in much the same way he used to before. 

He would feel their warmth, and their touch, and perhaps smell a bit of garlic on his wife’s breath.

Here is the Wikipedia definition of a human-machine interface.

“Human-machine interface is the part of the machine that handles the Human-machine interaction.”

“Common practices for interface software specification include use cases, constrain enforcement by interaction protocols (intended to avoid use errors.)

Our friend Stan could be ‘constrained’ from interfering with his own internal systems, for surely he would have that capability. It might be wise to prevent him from switching himself off, or, alternatively, Stan or his doctors/builders/team (for that’s what it would take, some kind of infrastructure) might be able to switch him off at night, and let the mind get a good night’s sleep. Biologically, the mind needs rest because of the way our brains are structures, and so our minds are also structured to conform to those capabilities. Short-term memory fades quickly, and our night-time brain activity may be involved in reducing that and making sense of all our daily stimuli, and ultimately transforming it into long-term memory. Dreaming may be a part of this process, and Stan will dream.

Much of the need for sleep is tied to the needs of the body. How much the need for sleep is tied to the psyche, is a little less clear. Even sharks sleep, and while they process just as much sensory data as we do—their environment is just as all-enveloping as our own, it’s also a little more monotonous. It’s all water, every thing is blue all the time. Our environment is so much more colourful, and there’s a lot more stuff in it. And yet it is also conceivable that Stan could go days without sleep when he wanted to, or when some necessity arose.

This author, and the average reader no doubt, has experienced a day or two of sleep deprivation once or twice in our more normal biologically-based lives, our ‘carbon-based’ life-forms, but Stan need never get tired in the same sense that we do.

In purely psychological terms, it would require some orientation time and most likely some guidance, both carbon-based and perhaps from those who have gone before him. These might originally have been disabled people, as in terms of medical and scientific research, the disabled would be seen as prime candidates for the human-machine interface.

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the quadriplegics will walk again. They’ll just have bits and pieces of plastic and metal sticking out of them, or holding it all together at first. Those will truly be hybrid human/machines. They might even look a bit like the Borg.

Our minds dream for a reason, and one would think that a system of artificial intelligence with our own unique personality imprinted upon it, would retain the need to rest, to play, and to engage in real human relationships.

It is a kind of immortality, one that goes beyond the limitations of the physical body.


Check out The Case of the Curious Killers here on Amazon.

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