An article about the past and future of the creation and control of brains.
“Can machines think?” Alan Turing’s famous question in his famous paper on Artificial Intelligence is still answered with a No, but not for long. His paper introduced the concept of the Turing Test, which tests the ability of a machine to generate a thinking performance indistinguishable from humans by making a human subject and the computer interact with a judge over IM who tries to predict which one of the two conversations is with the human.
Remember Sonny from I, Robot? He is almost human, except he’s a robot. Let’s go closer to reality. Remember ASIMO, the robot they taught to dance at HONDA labs? That’s a robot. What’s the difference? Sonny can think for himself. Completely.
So how close is reality to science fiction?
Control of heuristic thinking is a very complicated problem; whether the control is invasive (that is, of our own consciousness to create a submissive society like Aldous Huxley’s The Brave New World), or of a computer simulation of brain-like functioning (to create a SkyNet-like supercomputer). There are already scientists tinkering with “more targeted neural enhancements, which might involve inserting new genes or modifying existing ones, to improve not only our cognition but also our personality, fashioning more law-abiding citizens or devoted spouses,” if neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor, author of the book The Brain Supremacy, is to be believed.
Oh, and there is reason to believe it. Princeton started creating smart mice in 1999, and now MIT has learnt to control mice by activating their memories at will.
Those smart science fiction ideas by science geek writers aren’t Old Nan’s night time stories. It’ll happen, they swore. They told you to mark their words.
“Big brother is watching you.” -George Orwell’s book, 1984.
He introduced the concept of Thought Police in his book, a secret policing which monitors your thoughts and punishes you for thought crime. They use a sort of surveillance technology in the form of telescreens to listen in on the citizens, and even know their thoughts. A cognitive neuroscientist, Nathan Spreng from Cornell University can tell you whom you are thinking about. He successfully conducted a study, which is one of the first of its kind, to decode what people are imagining. Although right now, it involves the subject to willingly slide into an fMRI scanner.
“Use the Force, Luke.”- Ben Kanobi, Star Wars
The Jedi are known for their ability to use their mind force to control communicate with and manipulate objects and people around them. Todd Coleman of the University of California, San Diego, is developing wireless electronics that one can apply to the forehead like a tattoo that reads brain activity and allow one to control drones with their mind. Not just that, he has also developed electronic tattoos which when placed on the throat can behave as subvocal microphones through which people can communicate silently and wirelessly over smart-phones.
“I want to help you” – HAL 9000, AI computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey
HAL 9000 is an AI computer aboard a spaceship to Jupiter. Full of conversation and emotions, he is almost like a third companion to the two astronauts in command but due to a bug in his program brought to light by conflict in two instructions given to him HAL decides the only solution is to kill all the astronauts.
One of the mysterious Google X lab’s major projects is the creation of an AI search engine. They have already built a 9 layer neural network designed on the human brain that can learn to identify faces. It can tell apart human faces and identify other features of the human body and such by studying random images downloaded off the internet. Since it was let loose on the internet to learn what it will, the computer has spent an inordinate learning to spot a cat. It then generated a digital image with general features of a cat from what it learnt.
The future is going to be exciting, but only because we’re looking at it from the present. The future is going to be fast paced, frightening, disturbing, beautiful and incredible. With the advancement of experimental prosthetics that connects to the human neurological system we are going to see actual Cyborgs.
Adhiti Raman (Mechanical)
Illustration by Jayanth Vadyala (Architecture)