Trope-ic Thunder: Onward To the Edge Part 1

Trope-ic Thunder BannerBy Drew Parton

Well, that’s it, folks. 2015. We’ve officially hit “the future” (according to 80’s Michael J. Fox). And while we don’t have home fusion, we certainly have come a long way in terms of future technology. And since futurists and dreamers have always looked into the great possibility of humankind, I thought I’d do so as well. So, assuming we don’t nuke our sorry asses into oblivion, what can we possibly look forward to?

Remote Controlled Rats:

In Grant Morrison’s comic We 3, the government builds a series of animal soldiers (he came a long way from Moondance), including a pack of augmented remote-controlled rats. It’s a quite horrifying scene, but could something like that be even possible? Well, yeah, we’ve already done it. No, seriously.

Vertigo Comics

Vertigo Comics

Now, I know that some people will most likely worry about some of the horrible applications of this. Would we be able to do this to humans? Probably not.

Rats are smarter than most people give them credit for, but we are leagues and leagues more intelligent than them. There’s a part of the mammalian brain in the frontal lobe called the prefrontal cortex.

In humans and most primates, it’s generally implicated in personality, sense of “self,” complex planning, decision-making, and complex social behavior (hollering at ladies and/or gents). In simpler creatures, it’s implicated in voluntary motion (similar to the basal ganglia). Take a look at the picture below:

McGill University

McGill University

The shaded part is the frontal lobe in various animals, and at the very front of that is the prefrontal cortex. You can just barely see it in the brain of a common cat (mainly because cats are assholes and don’t even try moderating social interactions). And the frontal lobe of a rat is much smaller than even that! Because of this, it’s actually pretty unlikely for a system as rudimentary as this to really control us. But who knows? Maybe as systems like that possibly get more and more complex, it could actually be possible. Despite being the most powerful holistic information processor that the solar system has ever known (possible more than that), it favors efficiency over accuracy- it relies on shortcuts and “rules of thumb.” And while it’s no RC human, people have been exploiting those for years! Advertisers pay psychologists and neuroscientists loads of money to figure these out and design their products to maximally utilize them. Tide spent 3 years of perceptual research just getting the color of their bottle right. Believe it or not, it’d actually be a lot easier to do the reverse- instead of machines controlling humans brains…

Telepathically-Controlled Machines:

Bruce Willis made the movie Surrogates in 2009. I’m telling you this because not even Mama Willis went to go see it. In the movie, people stay inside their house and use pods to project their minds into humanoid robots- called surrogates. Thus, while their physical bodies may be fat, old, or Gary-Buseyed out, their robo-selves can be just who they want to be.

Mattel

Mattel

While we’re no where near perfect androids- or even robots that can do stairs particularly well, we are making fast head-way into thought-controlled machines. You’ve probably seen those games similar to Mindflex, where you concentrate hard on a ball and it levitates and you kind of Flappy Bird it through a maze. Well, while it’s not all that impressive, you are actually controlling it with your mind.

Inside the headset you wear for the game is a small Electroencephalograph. EEG’s measure electrical activity along the scalp from patterns of neural activity. It was one of the first ways to non-invasive measure brain function and it’s not a bad way to do it. How does Mindflex work? Well, as I’ve talked about before, we’ve been able to correlate various patterns of activity with mental states- so when you concentrate, the EEG detects that and makes the fan activate. Rudimentary? Yes. But it’s a step in the direction. And if you can have a basic brain-machine interface for just $50, you can bet we’ve got much more advanced systems in the works.

One of the most remarkable advancements in brain-machine interfaces is paving new tools for parapalegics.

Cathy Hutchinson was paralyzed from the neck down by a stroke. But thanks to neuroscientists from Brown University, she may be able to have total mobility one day. Scientists placed a microchip inside her brain called Braingate, and using this interface, Cathy is able to control a robotic arm with her mind. More advanced models are actually beginning to use feed-back loops so that the users feel the pressure that they’re putting on the object. This is a huge step between simple robot arms and real, true “cyborg augmentations.” The most important thing, oddly enough, would be to feel “pain.” Pain is the most important of your senses because it stops you from doing harm to your body. The same would be necessary for cybernetic body-parts. Now that we’ve passed the “Back to the Future” deadline, and accomplished about 70% of those inventions- might I suggest the Deus Ex deadline. Have working feed-back cybernetic augementations by 2027.

Square Enix

Square Enix

That being said, the problem with things like Deus Ex is that whilst straight-up replacement limbs are cool looking, they pose a problem. The arms might be super-strong and durable, but the shoulders they’re attached to are weak flesh and can’t handle the strain put on them. Okay, so replace them too. Well, what about the back? The ribs? the abs? The legs? At some point, the flesh is going to have to take the load. In the case of Deus Ex‘s Adam Jensen up there, both arms, legs, and most of his internal torso has been replaced with augmentations. In theory that could fix things with the strain. The easiest thing, though, would be to just make the augmentations limited by normal human strength parameters- but really, if we can’t have fun throwing cars, what’s the point?

Activision

Activision

The most probable depiction of human controlled limbs is featured in the newest Call of Duty game. In Advanced Warfare, soldiers are augmented with exoskeletons that allow them to lift great weights, leap great distances, and sprint with great speeds. By being a suit that is controlled by the mind and phsyical gestures- but takes all of the force and strain, this would solve that major problem. It would also allow for relatively easy outfitting and allow the wearer to take it off. While a more protective powered armor similar to the Iron Man suits would probably be for the best, our current military is already testing and designing exo-skeletons to assist soldiers in battle.

Photo Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

Photo Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

Brain Linking:

I loved Pacific Rim. As I’ve said before, I’ve pretty much always been a fan of giant robots. And while I generally try to respect others opinions, I will fight a motherfucker who disagrees. Besides the cool action and erection-inducing general awesomeness, one of the neat things about the movie was what they called the drift. The giant robots (called Jaegers) in the movie are controlled by the pilots telepathically, but the unique part is that because the strain on the brain is too much, two pilots control different parts of the Jaeger and share the load. They actually meld and link minds using something called “the drift.”

This sounds like something I’d usually say is whole-handily ridiculous, but not only is there a kernel of truth- there’s a whole damn bag of Orville Redenbacher’s. First off, as I’ve talked about, mind-controlled machines aren’t that far off. And as for linking brains- you do it every day.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Now, there’s a lot of bullshit out there concerning the “right brain/left brain” thing. But for those of you not really familiar: Your brain is really two halves connected by a big hub called the Corpus Callosum. By and large, every organelle in there (such as the prefrontal cortex) is really a pair of organelles with one on each half.

For things like your hands and feet, buttcheeks and half of the fibers from your eyes, the signals cross over the halves: so your left brain controls your right side and vice-versa. Now, I said “by and large” because while certainly there’s the same mass on both sides of the brain, some areas do different things on each side of the brain. For instance, for 95% of right handers (70%) of left-handers, two areas called Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area (areas involved with speech perception and speech production respectively) are located in the left hemisphere. As such, that side of the brain is “dominant” for speech- and much like how people are left or right handed, people are also left or right “eared” (and nostriled for that matter).

Now, thanks to the corpus callosum, the two sides of your brain are constantly transferring signals, communicating, and even arguing with each other. The two sides- and even their respective organelles- are more or vying for attention and dominance from places like the pre-frontal cortex.

In other words, Inside Out has got a morsel of scientific weight.

But back to Pacific Rim. Much like two brains, the two halves of your brain are separate mental processing centers that have to actually meld with each other much like in “the drift”. Back in the day, we used to treat severe epileptics by cutting their corpus callosum- we call them “split brain patients.” Good news is that it worked, but it gave us some rather odd side effects. Scientists discovered that each side would do it’s own thing without the input from the other side- including separate thoughts, tasks, and goals. So much like Jaeger pilots in Pacific Rim, or multiple computer processors, one day we may be able to string brains together to help processes information and solve problems faster.

Next week, I’ll be talking about the future of knowledge, space travel and robots, and maybe even space-traveling robots with knowledge!

For much less intelligent comments, be sure to check out my other column, where I review action films on Mondays, appropriately titled Mindless Action Mondays

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