Monday, December 06, 2004

Thinking Cap

Here's a pretty amazing story:

Four people were able to control a computer using their thoughts and an electrode-studded "thinking cap," U.S. researchers reported on Monday.

While experiments have allowed a monkey to control a computer with its thoughts, electrodes were implanted into the animal's brain. This experiment...required no surgery and no implants.

One hardly knows what to say. This is one of those scientific breakthroughs that I find both exhilarating and terrifying.

9 comments:

no_imagination said...

Totally amazing isn't it? I've read about this in Scientific American and Wired. As I recall this whole idea was to develop a means by which the handicapped could become more independent, as a way to not just manipulate computers, but as a means to be able to manipulate prosthetics with more precision, to emulate a natural limb. However, no one seems to be talking about the possible military applications of this technology- and that is scary. I can well imagine military machines of war being controlled at a distance, soldiers outfitted with prosthetic armaments or enhancements, exoskeletons, turning them in to super soldiers and the like- so, I agree, that this technology could be quite terrifying. If you've read anything about the possible military applications, I'd be very interested in reading them.

Phila said...

Haven't read anything specific, NI. My supposition is that like a lot of breakthrough technology, this originated in some classified form of science and we're seeing a lagged "trickle-down" effect. I'm thinking especially of Jose Delgado's experiments in the 1950s and 1960s, as detailed in his book "Physical Control of the Mind." He was doing some incredible stuff back then - hooking bulls up to remote-control devices, among other things - but we haven't heard much about advances in that technology in the intervening years.

What bothers me, basically, is that the difference between a microphone and a speaker is a matter of the circuit it's hooked to, rather than of basic structure. With that in mind, I wonder to what extent, if any, this device can be made to work as a transmitter rather than a receiver, turning electrical impulses into thoughts or movements, or even just sensations.

Of course, the things you mentioned are real possibilities too.

Anonymous said...

This fucking blog sucks. Well, then again, probably good for three minutes before bedtime. Be out like a light.

Phila said...

Yeah, it's pretty bad alright. That's life, huh?

no_imagination said...

I see, you're thinking of using the technology in reverse. I know that for quite some time we've been developing technology that will allow us to control a living being physically, and that we already possess the ability to do so in gross terms- like hooking up electrodes that bypass the higher brain functions and directly control the motor system, movement, or using electromagnetic waves to cause excruciating pain, a sensation (see http://www.de.afrl.af.mil/factsheets/activedenial.html). I also know they've been developing sound weapons that can drop a human and turn them into a twitching, quivering mass. While I haven't read Delgado's work, it sounds to me that he was doing work along these lines, that he wasn't really controlling the mind per se- generating thoughts that in turn create an action- just the motor functions. Anyway, while this type of technology is pretty impressive and scary, it's quite primitive. It's far from the realm of true mind control- creating a "thoughtaction," (I'm not sure what term is used for creating a thought that creates an action). It's more like reflex control or short circuiting the brain, the subject knows damn well what is going on at the time, or at least that they were "hijacked." So yes, we have developed the abilty to create sensations with em devices, and can control movement via electrodes or implants, but we've not developed anything close to thought control. In fact, I've heard nothing of a serious nature on the thought control front- admittedly this is something the government has been trying to develop for some time, (those old lsd trials weren't just about developing a truth serum).

I think the reason that we haven't heard as much on the thought control front is simply because it's very difficult to develop that kind of technology without a comprehensive understanding of how the brain functions, which is something we don't have right now. Sure, you can brainwash someone without having said understanding, but that isn't really in the realm we're discussing. Right now, it's just a heck of a lot easier to hook up to a subject in the general areas where we think the thought commands are being generated and see if the subject can form the connection and control a device. I think doing it in reverse, especially without any physical connections, is still far off into the future. Our understanding of neuroscience, while amazing, is still in it's infancy, mostly still in the trial and error stage. But hey, it's not my specialty, so my understanding could be wrong.

Oh, and here's something else scary to think about. I remember reading somewhere that they've been able to connect to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe of the brain, short circuit "visual reality," and generate images that the subject "sees." Nifty, eh?

Phila said...

Yeah, Delgado's work was with motor impulses. He'd let a bull charge him, then press a button at the last moment and send it off to one side.

I wasn't necessarily thinking of thought control, so much as a more refined form of motor control that'd be driven by someone else's thinking. You wouldn't take over the subject's consciousness; perhaps you'd merely suppress it...maybe even beforehand.

Personally, I'd be amazed if we didn't have the ability to broadcast into the brain on some level. If we don't, it surely can't be far off! I know that the HAARP project people think it could be used to broadcast information and even images directly into people's heads, but I have absolutely no opinion on that. I'm always willing to believe in the intent, but I tend to be more skeptical about the technology...or in some cases, the utility.

Lest I sound like a "Luddite" (ha!), I should add that for people with disabilities, this technology really is great news. It's very exciting stuff.

no_imagination said...

"Personally, I'd be amazed if we didn't have the ability to broadcast into the brain on some level."

Yeah, they call it TV.

Sorry, I just couldn't resist.

Well, when you mentioned turning electrical impulses into thoughts, movements, or sensations, you got me thinking about thought control technology because right now we already can, to a degree, control movement and sensation. So, I was probably writing to try and clear up my own thinking on the matter- why we haven't been as successful in that realm, (well, aside from Madison ave marketing).

As far as refining control of motor movement, I don't think, relatively speaking, that will be too far off into the future, and having someone else's thoughts controlling those movement doesn't sound that outlandish. Blocking consciousness of said control would be a big plus, it's always possible that the subject could eventually develop the ability to subvert those controls, and it sounds much easier than outright thought control. However, how can this be done without altering or damaging the brain physically? Consciousness and memory are very complex processes. I could see this technology first being used on animals, controlling them to do jobs that we aren't physically suited for. Aside from the ethical considerations, (personally I think it would be wrong to do what I suggest as being possible), another question would be whether we can obliterate their consciousness and still have them "function" because if not, what happens if they become fearful, etc? In fact, I remember reading Ben Bova's, "The Winds of Altair", which had a plot akin to this, using native "apes" under human control to build a human outpost on some planet that was inhospitable to the human constitution- fear, among many other factors, was a big problem. Anyway, the idea has been out there for some time.

Obviously, I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the ability to actually create the technology for thought control or even memory/consciousness supression, but I sure do believe that the intent is out there. I'm not saying it can't or won't happen, I just think that in order to do so, we need a more sophisticated understanding of how the mind functions and that there may be possible physical limitations that could prevent us from implementing these ideas, (black hole computers anyone?).

I didn't know that the HAARP project was about mind control, nevertheless, the conclusions you state them as having are probably half correct- it's likely that we will be able to broadcast information and even images directly into people's heads. As an example, phone implants are just one small step in that direction. As far as images- they have already demonstrated that it can physically be done. I know this is one heck of a hedge statement, but I just think the ability to do so without direct interventions is either well into the future or not possible at all, (for technical reasons- if the em wave affects one human it should affect all, even the guys running it, so how do you shield selected populations? Tin foil hats? Another would be focus, it must have a specific frequency that triggers the brain, can that frequency even be focused or must it be broad? I imagine people who aren't as slow witted as myself can think of even more possible technical problems).

Anyway, I see that those intentions are out there, and they scare the hell out of me because I can see many nefarious applications. I'm no Luddite either, (BTW, nice informative post about the Luddites). I think some of these technologies could be very beneficial, like for folks who are physically handicapped- blind, deaf, quadriplegics, etc- but because of our demonstrated past of acting unethically, (an understatement), I'm very wary of these developments. I must say I find the subject fascinating- I should probably read up more on it so I can have a better handle on the subject, (that and not sound like some ill informed idiot conjecturing).

Phila said...

Couldn't agree more about our paltry knowledge of mind. I suspect we'll get a fine grasp of creating gross effects, and ignore the minutiae (at our peril, natch). Some of this stuff is based on a really outdated mechanical notion of fixed locality, which is certainly not the whole story of cognition.

The HAARP paranoia is being spread by conspiracy types, not (I don't think) by HAARP theorists themselves. There is some stuff in a Pentagon (?) paper about controlling the weather, but I don't remember them specifically talking about crowd control through mass hallucination (or whatever). No idea how fields would affect bystanders, though one virtue of the technology is supposed to be pinpoint accuracy. I'm really not up on it. Interesting subject, though! Lots of weird claims and counterclaims flying around, but I'm just not qualified to sort it out.

Sounds like we pretty much agree, overall. I'm less worried about a perfected thought-control device than about some crude approximation, or even just the process of research itself. Failed attempts can be as bad as, or worse than, successful ones!

no_imagination said...

"Sounds like we pretty much agree, overall. I'm less worried about a perfected thought-control device than about some crude approximation, or even just the process of research itself. Failed attempts can be as bad as, or worse than, successful ones!"

Yeah, I'd say we're pretty much on the same page and your conclusion neatly sums up my own feelings- somehow I'd manage to write two pages just to get to the point.