Becoming Borg

By Greg Stevens on August 22nd, 2013

On the whole, science fiction has been pretty good at predicting the technologies of the future. Rocket ships appeared in Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, communication satellites in Arthur C. Clarke’s Wireless World in 1945, cell phones in Star Trek in 1966 and, remarkably precisely, Amazon’s Kindle in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in 1978.

Of course, we’re still waiting for some predictions to come true. For example, Pat Cadigan predicted in Fools (1992) that eventually movie actors would no longer act: they would simply “franchise” themselves to movie studios: the studio would pay the actor to digitally record every aspect of his physical appearance, his style of movement, his voice and his personality. What appeared in the final film would be pure computer simulation.

This, incidentally, is George Lucas’s plan for Star Wars: Episode VII.

By far the most intriguing cluster of predictions have related to human-computer interactions: the way machines might be connected to, or even replace, some parts of the human body. Here are our favourite conjectures from science fiction about brain-computer interfaces: how they will happen, what they will be like, and what the consequences will be.

We’ve rated these bold prognostications by asking ourselves two questions: has the prediction come true, and, if not, is it ever likely to?

The ‘monitor’ in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)

‘I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears.’

In the popular book Ender’s Game, soon to be a big-budget Hollywood movie, which is set in an ambiguously dated “near future”, the nations of the world have banded together in preparation for a new war with aliens who have already devastated our planet twice before. The military is recruiting young children into an elite training program called Battle School. But they only want to choose the best and the brightest, and part of their screening process is to give children who show potential a “monitor”.

The monitor is a small implant on the back of the neck, which connects directly to a child’s nervous system. It can read signals from the child’s eyes and ears, and possibly other senses, and transmit those signals to a government surveillance team twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. After some period of continually watching how the child reacts and behaves in the world, they decide whether he is “battle school material” or not.

  • Chances that a read-only hook-up will be able to pick up signals from the nervous system and transmit them so that others can “see through your eyes”:  HIGH
  • Chances that eager parents will consent to having every second of their child’s life monitored by the government on the off chance that they will be accepted into an elite school: ALSO HIGH

The ‘hybrids’ in Blindsight by Peter Watts (2006)

We have such need of intellects greater than our own. But we’re not very good at building them. The forced matings of minds and electrons succeed and fail with equal spectacle. Our hybrids become as brilliant as savants, and as autistic… Computers bootstrap their own offspring, grow so wise and incomprehensible that their communiques assume the hallmarks of dementia: unfocused and irrelevant to the barely-intelligent creatures left behind.

In the dark far-future world of Blindsight, humanity uses many approaches to meld mind with machine. Characters undergo radical surgical procedures that leave their personalities in tatters, but allow them to process data in amazing and superhuman ways. Genetic engineers are even able to dig up genes from a long-extinct species, vampires, and bring them back into the world.

Yes, that’s right: they eat blood and raw meat, and because of a neurological impairment they have a strange aversion to right angles; but they also have memories and prediction capabilities that far outstrip those of a normal human, which means they can more easily interface with computers and process large data-sets.

Each of these crippled super-humans has been augmented, either surgically or genetically, to meld with computers and allow computer processing to vastly increase their intelligence. And as a result, normal humans have difficulty understanding them.

  • Chances that brain-computer interfaces will require not just the creation of new hardware technology, but also new ways to augment our own flesh and nervous systems: HIGH
  • Chances that this process will involve vampire DNA: LOW

The ‘Happy Cloak’ in Software by Rudy Rucker (1982)

This cloth he’d draped himself in…. Happy Cloak…  this Happy Cloak seemed to be alive in some horrible parasitic sense of the word. It had sunk dozens… hundreds? … of microprobes through his suit and skin and flesh, and had linked itself up with his nervous system. He knew this without having to feel around, knew it as surely as he knew he had fingers.

In the novel Software, set in the year 2020, self-replicating robots have become independent and set up their own city and economy on the moon. One of their inventions is the “Happy Cloak”: an attachment or accessory that has a level of intelligence of its own, but is primarily meant as a helper and companion for the wearer. It is a robotic symbiote. And although it was created by robots and designed for robots, when “Sta-Hi”, a human, puts it on, it is able to interface with him.

The connection with the Happy Cloak is two-way: the cloak can hear Sta-Hi’s thoughts, and can project a voice into his mind or even generate images in his visual field. Basically, it’s a more intrusive and creepy version of Google Glass. Presumably thanks to a fluke in the way that the cloak interfaces with his nervous system, it also causes him to speak English with a choppy Japanese accent.

  • Chances that semi-intelligent wearable computers will be able to attach to us in order to guide us and keep us company through two-way communication: MEDIUM, but not by 2020
  • Chances that these computers will cause English speakers to speak in a choppy Japanese accent: LOW

The ‘sockets’ in Synners by Pat Cadigan (1991)

“Eight sockets will serve the purpose,” Travis went on, “though we may eventually find that some subjects need more, or even fewer.”

Travis’s sudden, brief smile was bizarrely sunny. “Your advertising people will understand how to make good use of this.”

Synners describes a near-future world at the moment of the initial discovery and release of the first “socket”: a port implanted into a human brain that allows direct input from a computer. These ports allow experiences to be both uploaded to and downloaded from human minds.

The most interesting thing about this story is not the technology itself, but the politics, social manipulation, corporate espionage, and black market intrigue. The technology is initially developed by an entertainment firm that wants to produce better music videos, until that firm’s parent company is absorbed in a hostile takeover by another company, which then tries to pitch the technology to politicians as a magical way to help people with depression and seizures.

Behind it all is a dark world of hackers, “feel-good mills” that want to use the sockets to get people high, and a colourful set of rockers and rebels as characters. (We’ve already seen, with Playstation and Wii, that some of the best technological advances do come from the entertainment industry.)

  • Chances that the first neural sockets will be developed and even patented through a private enterprise under the auspices of the entertainment industry: HIGH
  • Chances that it will involve music videos: LOW, but perhaps that can be forgiven, since the book was written in 1991

“Dream Earth” in The Celestial Steam Locomotive by Michael Coney (1983)

“Would you like to Dance?” he asked. He was a Burt. He was wonderful, thought Marilyn. They danced, and it couldn’t have been better, not even if she’d smallwished the whole thing herself…

Another Burt asked her to dance. She noticed that Burts and Marilyns were very popular this season, which was comforting. It was good to be among her own people. She half-remembered being lonely, once.

In the far, far future, The Celestial Steam Locomotive predicts that the air will thin, humans will retreat into covered domes, and as their bodies become less and less mobile, they will choose to link themselves up to a gigantic computer, The Rainbow, that allows them to exist in a completely simulated world. While their bodies lay dormant in the beds of the dome, they interact with each other and live their lives in a simulated reality that is created by the collective interaction of thousands of human minds, dreaming together in a virtual space: Dream Earth.

Humans can use their will to alter their simulated reality, within certain limitations.  They can make “little wishes” to create or change small objects, or contrive simple scenarios. This takes only a small amount of energy. They can also make “big wishes”, with a larger energy cost and a longer time to recover, to radically change their immediate environment, move to a totally different location or time, or even change their own form.

When people have the option of changing who they are, only a small minority of people decide to be themselves. Instead, in Dream Earth, you find glamorous parties where people follow trends: men and women wish themselves into idealised masculine or feminine forms, “Burts” or “Marilyns” – whatever images happen to be trendy, popular and sexy at the time.

  • Chances that people will eventually choose to lay down their real bodies in domes and enter a completely simulated “dream Earth” where they can control their own reality and create a world of virtual interaction? HIGH
  • Chances that there will be places in that reality where everybody is either a “Burt” or a “Marilyn”?  Yeah, pretty much HIGH