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Mind Control & the Internet

Now, many important details would be missing. The cat’s breed, its color, its posture, what it’s doing, and so forth…. But it would convey a key piece of information: your friend would know that you are seeing a cat.

Of course, if you called or texted or e-mailed your friend, she would also know that you were seeing a cat, and she’d know what it looked like, and what it was doing, and that it was a significant enough event in your life that you were telling her about it. Do we want to know every time someone we know sees a cat?

It’s easy to make fun of this, just as it is easy to dismiss the Singularity as a silly science fiction fantasy, but that would be even sillier. Of course, one of the groups of people most drawn to science fiction are the engineers who write code and build robots and have, in less than a generation, changed the way we do research and medicine and read books and communicate with each other and pay the bills and on and on. (In a 2004 interview, Larry Page envisioned a future where one’s brain is “augmented” by Google, so that when you think of something, “your cell phone whispers the answer into your ear.”) As Lanier points out:

We [the engineers] make up extensions to your being, like remote eyes and ears (webcams and mobile phones) and expanded memory (the world of details you can search for online). These become the structures by which you connect to the world and other people…. We tinker with your philosophy by direct manipulation of your cognitive experience…. It takes only a tiny group of engineers to create technology that can shape the entire future of human experience with incredible speed.

Moore’s Law is predicted to hit a wall around 2015, when it will be impossible to squeeze more circuitry onto a silicon chip without it overheating. By then, though, computers may have switched over to magnetic random access memory, chips that operate with subatomic circuitry. One of the main creators of MRAM, Stuart Wolf, developed it at DARPA, the agency that invented ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet as we know it. A few years ago, in an interview with Fortune, Wolf, envisioning the future of computing, imagined that before too long we’ll be wearing a headband that feeds directly into the brain and lets us, among other things, talk without speaking, see around corners, and drive by thinking.8

Another branch of DARPA is pouring millions of dollars into the development of a battlefield “thought helmet” that will let soldiers in the field communicate wordlessly by translating brain waves, which will be “read” by sensors embedded in the helmet and arrayed around the scalp, into audible radio messages. (One researcher called it a “radio without a microphone.”)9 As early as 2000, Sony began work on a patented way to beam video games directly into the brain using ultrasound pulses to modify and create sensory images for an immersive, thoroughly inescapable gaming experience.10 More recently, computer scientists at the Freie Universität in Berlin got a jump on Stuart Wolf’s vision of a car operated solely by thought. Using commercially available electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors to first decode the brain wave patterns for “right,” “left,” “brake,” and “accelerate,” they then were able to connect those sensors to a computer-controlled vehicle, so that a driver “was able to control the car with no problem—there was only a slight delay between the envisaged commands and the response of the car,” according to one of the lead researchers.11

Moreover, a group at the University of Southampton in England has developed a BCI—a brain–computer interface—that enables people to communicate with each other brain to brain without thought or, as the developers call it, B2B, again with a kind of EEG cap that lets one person think of “left” (as represented by a zero) or “right” (represented by a one), send one of those digits to a second person, also wired with electrodes that are connected as well to a computer that receives the digit, and, once it is understood, allows the second person to flash the digit back to the sender by way of a light-emitting diode (LED), which is “read” by that person’s visual cortex. It’s not quite the soundless, wordless, almost thoughtless integration of our thoughts, B2B, but it’s a fourth or fifth step toward a future that is becoming increasingly visible.

Jaron Lanier is right: you are not a gadget—yet.

  1. 8

    See Peter Schwartz and Rita Koselka, “Quantum Leap,” Fortune, August 1, 2006. 

  2. 9

    Mark Thompson, “The Army’s Totally Serious Mind-Control Project,” Time, September 14, 2008. 

  3. 10

    See Brian Osborne, “Sony May One Day Beam Sensory Data into Your Brain,” Geek.com, April 5, 2005. 

  4. 11

    See “Scientists Steer Car with the Power of Thought,” fu-berlin.de, February 17, 2011. 

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