In the future, our brains will be merged near-seamlessly with computers…
This is the dream of an increasingly larger number of people, the nightmare of a vanishingly smaller number, and the unlikely possibility to the vast majority. For me, it’s all three, a statement of the desire to have magic-like powers as machines are finally transformed from external servants to entwined extensions. Machines are dumb tools, hard to use without training, inanimate or at best barely-intelligent materials with which we either communicate vaguely and clumsily, or we endure countless hours adapting our natural patterns and mental conditioning to accommodate the tyranny of atoms, the unyielding physical matter..
But the dream holds thus: we are entwined with the machines, they are extensions of our thoughts, able to respond with ease to what our true meanings are. We dream that we will not have to conform our internal, perfect visions through the crude medium of physical action or the crude linearity of vocalizations.
This is the dream of the integrated post-human, of the merged homo sapiens electronica, not a new idea but one which seems more visible now. We already extend our thoughts and memories and society out over the Web, that soup of information into which we pour our souls and drink deeply, sometimes intimately and sometimes with voyeuristic intention.
Right now, it seems embarrassingly primitive, sometimes. I’m communicating through words in a linear fashion, but behind these mad fingers and roiling brain is the perfect thought, uncrafted and raw but immediate and direct, perfect, and..
But wait? Is it perfect?
Is there nothing to be said of craft?
Is the miasma of my thoughts really better than the clarity of my words?
I wander back and forth through my argument. If there is value in craft, than the thoughts aren’t perfect. If I can craft better, I can have better thoughts, and can more telepathically impact others. But if I remove the atomic and leave only the informational, do I need to craft it? Will I need training to craft my thoughts, make them structured? Can I even do such a thing, restructuring the chaos that lies beneath the surface of my placid expression, like taming the sea monster beneath the calm lake?
I’ve wandered far from my initial point, my inspiration: to talk about Chris Moriarty’s book, Spin State. And, in an oblique way, to talk about the recent attack my website suffered.
The latter is nearly uninteresting, aside from the momentary confusion, panic and inevitable fury it inspired. It was some sort of scripted attack, a random collision of a fool following a misguided ideology of exploitation and an exploit no doubt accidentally created in the complex fabric that is the software system running my website.
(I know about software, and know well how complexity of extendable systems grows beyond predictability, becomes something managed by general principle and redundancy, becomes exploitable by random chance, becomes impossible to control. Much like thought or life or the universe, really – and if the universe hasn’t figured out how to fully debug itself by now, what is a programmer to do on any significant scale themselves?)
The disruption in the website paused me, and I let it, damn me… I shan’t let that happen again.
But it felt personal, even though it was intensely impersonal. It felt as though one of my external memory stores had been compromised, rifled through, a crude bomb placed within, not caring what it disturbed. As a post-humanist, I certainly can’t ignore the dangers of increasingly integrating myself with technology..
Another thread weaves its way into this tale: recently seeing Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, and remarking on how Batou hacks the yakuza’s visual electronics to remove himself from it, thus rending himself invisible..
Throughout this whirlpool has spun in the book Spin State, which I read in a rush, near the end. Whenever I read books, I find that the first half goes slowly, my memory isn’t fully formed of it; the latter half is eaten eagerly, when the “switch” happens, and I “get it”.
The book follows a post-human — a genetically engineered, hard-wired soldier — and an advanced, independent, inhuman, wealthy and smitten AI. The book’s core ideas are well-executed, but I kept getting distracted by what seems like kitchen-sink complexity, unnecessarily levels of distracting details. Perhaps I am taking too long between reading stretches, and my muscles have a difficulty with the burden of deciphering the layered jargon (some of which is incongruously modern!). Perhaps my focii on longer ambient music and single-point short stories has brought in me less appreciation for such complexities. Perhaps it is merely that I have less free time to consider things and to read in peace, so I am impatient with the things I consume..
This complaint aside, I liked the book. I wonder when reading this books about its development, in part because I am searching for patterns on which to base my own writing style. Given the surprisingly extensive bibliography on the source material in the back of the book, one might assume that the universe of this possible future occurred first, that the author was world-building in search of a plot. But, given the complexities of the main character’s existence (which takes the entire first half of the book to establish), perhaps this is a character study. Or maybe, given the detective story which forms the eventual backbone of the story was the genesis, although it seems more like the vehicle, given the technological excuses needed to maneuver the characters around.
In any case, the potential implications and everyday use of what are today purely theoretical technologies is one of the reasons that science fiction will always hold my attention. I’m perfectly content to read about cardboard characters in service of the exploration of an idea, and perhaps when the ideas can be complex the characters need to be more simplified — one reason I find myself complaining here, perhaps.
There are two core technologies explored in this book: the very established and well-explored notion of a brain-computer interface, which allows people to interact with computers by simply thinking it; and the more recently approved notion of quantum entangled communication, which allows instantaneous communication over infinite distances without intermediate media — Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”.
The book throws in a cornucopia of other ideas as well — faster-than-light travel, artificial intelligence, sentient inorganic creatures, interstellar mining operations, military bureaucracies, genetic engineering which leads to specialized humanoids, class and speciesist war, alternative government structures.. plenty of ideas!
One wonders if the density of ideas is simply because most of them are taken as rote now, that the audience expected for such a book easily accepts the rest of the ideas. I suppose I should be somewhat glad if that were true, although it causes me to doubt my own pedigree if I’m not sophisticated enough to keep up with the book!
One other idea struck me as useful from the book, one which again resonated with my recent watching of GITS2: the oracle.
In the book, the oracle is a low-grade artificial intelligence running on a cerebral implant. It sees and hears and feels every sensation you have, records, it analyzes it, and searches for relevant information. It is a cybernetic manifestation of Googling, in many way, as it is searching for contextual clues in order to provide insight and information.
In the movie GITS2, the two main characters, Togusa and Batou, are constantly quoting famous lines to each other. It seemed a little jarring — I mean, these are intelligent characters, but when would they have the time or opportunity to be exposed to all that philosophical thought?
In a vaguely remembered throw-away line in GITS2, I realized that these characters weren’t digging deep within the well of their own knowledge to retrieve droplets of wisdom, but were merely selecting quotes from options provided by their internal oracles, after it scoured whatever databases it has based on keywords half-realized by the people themselves.
They weren’t supremely intelligent: they were as smart as their Google searches.
I find this notion both hopeful and disturbing. It is hopeful, in that I have considered the notion of externalized memories and computer-assisted knowledge for everyday use for a while. I consider this a natural way to combat the apparent decline in my faculties — on inherent to all my species besides the lucky few.
It is disturbing because it is shallow. I see examples of this all the time, of people with the surface level of facts and little understanding. I do it myself, much to my shame. I simply haven’t time to absorb things deeply, so I drink from the proffered cup by the well attendant, rather than taking the back-breaking and slower route of extracting my own knowledge..
I discovered that Moriarty went on to write another book to follow this one, in the same universe if not with all the same characters (given that some characters are clones and software, it won’t be surprising to see other manifestations of them return!), with a third book coming this year. I’ll be keeping an eye out for that book, but given my chaotic and severely backlogged reading list, I doubt I’ll get to it until the end of physical print.
Was there a point in all this? Did I make it? No, likely on both counts. This was a ramble, an exercise to extract thought and return to the bicycle of my thoughts, derailed by a hit-and-run protester. I think it was interesting journey, even if there was no destination in mind.
Perhaps next time I do this, I’ll even edit it! 🙂
PS: I think much of my current mental confusion is from reeling over the incomprehensible scale of disaster in Japan. I simply cannot imagine that level of devastation, and I’m wondering at the level of future cultural impact this will have. That, mayhaps, will be explored in another post someday..