July 16, 2014
In the movie “Transcendence,” the lead character, an artificial intelligence researcher, is uploaded to a super-computer before his body dies. His consciousness survives and his mind, unencumbered by the weakness of his physical body, begins expanding exponentially. While science fiction, the movie’s premise is not entirely impossible. While the human brain is highly complex, accessing it, decoding it, and interfacing with it has long-ago already begun.
The US Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, has announced its “Restoring Active Memory (RAM)” project – which intends to develop a prosthetic for the brain to record and store memories for those with degenerative neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or victims of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
The research builds on the understanding that memory is a process in which neurons in certain regions of the brain encode information, store it and retrieve it. Certain types of illnesses and injuries, including Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy, disrupt this process and cause memory loss. TBI, in particular, has affected 270,000 military service members since 2000.
The goal of LLNL’s work — driven by LLNL’s Neural Technology group and undertaken in collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Medtronic — is to develop a device that uses real-time recording and closed-loop stimulation of neural tissues to bridge gaps in the injured brain and restore individuals’ ability to form new memories and access previously formed ones.
The research is funded by DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program.
In essence, RAM would also allow humans to expand their brains into non-organic systems. While the project states it intends to restore memory function to those with deficiencies, the same prosthetic could also be used to expand the memory capacity of people with normal brain functions. While the device currently is intended to be an implant, future reiterations may include external devices either linked physically or perhaps even wirelessly. The implications may lead to devices and systems that allow our “minds” to expand beyond the physical confines of our biological brains, opening the doors to both great opportunities and equally frightful threats.
Threats and Opportunities
For starters, the digitization of our neurology opens the doors to all the threats and opportunities that befall or benefit existing digital devices, including those connected to the Internet. Collaboration, control, viruses, hacking, surveillance, exponential intellectual progress, personal empowerment, and even human-drones are all in the cards.
And while a climatic and apocalyptic “war with the machines” lingers menacingly in the back of our collective minds, what if devices like that which DARPA is developing led to man merging with machines instead? There would be no war with machines, we would be the machines.
In this context, we face two possible futures: one like that portrayed in science fiction films like Terminator or the Matrix where humans hide amid the ruins of their once proud civilization fighting a desperate resistance against far superior machines that turned on them, or a future like that portrayed in the Japanese anime films and series, Ghost in the Shell. In the latter, the lines are blurred between man and machine and a tenuous balance of power is maintained throughout human civilization, between extremes of both organic and cybernetic natures.
With advances like that announced by DARPA, the latter scenario is the most likely one. A merge between man and machine is the most likely scenario – whomever controls cybernetic technology however, will determine how utopian or dystopian our future will be. Currently, DARPA and other corporate-financier monopolies control this research and technology, while they monopolize other realms of scientific progress including molecular biology, genetic engineering, and information technology. This power in such few hands is surely a recipe for disaster – at least for those without access or say in how the technology is used – or in other words – for the vast majority of us.
A consumerist paradigm that has neurological implants tied to our information technology infrastructure would lead to abuses that would make the NSA’s current overreaching authority look placid in comparison. It could also transform our military’s abilities into the most effective and most horrifying of both human and drone combat
Instead, this technology must be democratized, opened up, and disseminated across society. People to be fully free and in charge of their destiny must not focus on “democracy” and “civil literacy,” but rather on technological literacy, as it is technology that forms the foundation upon which modern society is built and controlled. If we want a say in this modern, technological society, we must understand how it works – currently such an understanding lies in so few hands.
This article was posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 at 5:28 am
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