Trope-ic Thunder: Onward to the Edge Part 2

Trope-ic Thunder BannerBy Drew Parton

Part 1: Remote Controlled Animals,
Mind-to-Machine interface,
and
Pacific Rim’s the Drift

Last week, I started talking about what sci-fi might come true and future technology could shape the world- and eventually the future science fiction that future Sarah will have to review.

Downloading Knowledge:

The Matrix was a 1999 science fiction film about future post-apocalyptic humans being trapped inside a fictional computer simulation of the 1990’s (read: hell). For it’s time it was pretty ground breaking in its film-making techniques (and ancient as Tut’s balls in it’s philosophical musings). It was a really cool movie from my younger years that sadly didn’t pan out into any sequels.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. Pictures

YOU SHUT YOUR DIRTY MOUTH! IT DIDN’T PAN OUT INTO ANY SEQUELS!

In the movie, the humans are literally plugged into the matrix via a gigantic plug in the back of their skulls. Not only does this transfer their consciousness into the simulation, but allows hackers to directly download things into their brain like piloting and hot-wiring skills. Now, I’ve talked before about how the brain doesn’t store memory like a hardrive, every time you “recall” a memory, it actually gets recreated. So, surely there’s no way you could just upload skills or memories into a brain, right? Well, I wouldn’t be talking about it if the answer was “no.”

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. Pictures

They just download terrabytes of porn with it…

I ought to clarify- it’s sort of a “it depends.” What learning is, is the forging of brand new connections between neurons- it really is a physical process. So getting new electrical signals to parts of the brain wouldn’t necessarily automatically give you those new skills and knowledge- you don’t have those connections. In addition, there’s something called “somatosensory mapping.” The somatosensory cortex is the part of the brain that deals with the sense of “touch” and the motor cortex is for motor movement. Now each area of those cortices corresponds to a specific area of the body, and over the years we’ve been able to pretty precisely map it and figure what goes to where. We’ve even made a handy-dandy (and horrifying) map:

Image courtesy of BrainHQ

Image courtesy of BrainHQ

GAH!

The incredible thing is that the motor cortex actually changes depending on what you do. You can see that already a lot of space (and thus sensitivity) is devoted to the hand- but we’ve seen that pianists, violinists, typists and other people who do fine motor skills with their hands actually have more of the motor and somatosensory cortices devoted to their fingers. In the case of The Matrix, this wouldn’t work well, it’s a little harder to forcibly restructure the brain like this- and as everybody know, takes a lot of practice. So, no instant learning of kung-fu.

BUT! We’ve seen in animals trials that we can possibly implant other types of knowledge. Neuroscientists put electrodes into parts of a monkey’s brain and recorded all of the electrical signals as the monkey learned a decision task involving remembering and selecting certain pictures. They then took a totally new monkey who had never learned the task, placed electrodes into the same areas of the brain, and fired the same patterns they recorded from the first monkey.

Cuteness courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Cuteness courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The first group of Monkeys scored at a 75% accuracy rating after 20 training and testing trials, the unlearned monkeys originally scored in at 43% (never learning the task), but after the neural signals from the first monkeys were pumped in, that shot up to 53%- better than chance. And when the scientists also fed the neural signal recordings into the monkey’s prefrontal cortex- their accuracy went up to 73% within three trials. These monkey’s never actually “learned” the task, but we were able to make them “know” it.

Think about the applications for this in humans- with the rapid and quadratic expansion of technology, a lot of workers and employees are left in the knowledge dust, so to speak. With this technology, it could be possible to pump knowledge of new skills and new devices directly into their brain. Learning could be instant. Now, while that sounds cool, think of the devastation it’d cause to the world’s education system. Or what about the possibility of a Total Recall situation- where false memories are directly implanted into the brain? With technology like this, that might actually be possible. One day, perhaps you could spontaneously download all of the emotional memories of a family vacation without even leaving your home. Obviously, the first step of this technology is…

TriStar Pictures

TriStar Pictures

Finding a woman big enough to fit Arnold Schwarzennegar

Sorry, I mean:

Uploading the Brain

Immortality is hard. It’s so hard that nobody has really done it yet. Yet. There’s a new project going on called Connectome that has the ambitious goal of mapping the entirety of a brain’s neural connections. We’ve done it in sea slugs, and mice, but their ultimate goal within the next century is to begin fully mapping all of the human brains circuits (some 100 Trillion ones). The possibilities are incredible, after all, if we can fully map all of the “wiring” of the human brain, who’s to say that we couldn’t build an exact robotic copy using transistors? It would be possible to then upload your mind to a robot brain even after your original self dies- after all, it’s just data.

Designing a Robot that Understands the Styx song “Mr. Roboto”

Remember when that robot beat the crap out of Ken Jennings and that other dude on Jeopardy?

Columbia TriStar Television

Columbia TriStar Television

Well, as I’ve said before, most of why Watson won was his reaction time. Really all he did was a super-quick google search to compile the most probably answer (he actually submitted his top three answers). Are computers that good? Sorta. Certainly they’re good at retrieving answers- and modern computers are actually better than doctors at diagnosis, but they still fall apart at most tasks that are easy for humans (they can’t process holistically- “big picture”). Our very most advanced computers have just passed what’s called “the mirror test.” Basically it’s the ability to recognize the creature in the mirror as yourself- if you’ve ever observed them, you’ll know that household pets and babies are notoriously terrible at this.

Thecorpa Robotics

Thecorpa Robotics

Yes, “Nice,” Qbo…

The robot’s name is Qbo and he’s advanced to enough to even be able to know where objects are based upon the reflection in the mirror. I can’t do that when I go to brush my fucking teeth. Some robots are also advanced enough to be able to detect some facial expressions and emotions. So is it Skynet time yet? Probably not. Much like human evolution, robot evolution is gradual, we won’t have an evil computer without a slightly less evil one. And it’d still have to be programmed to be evil.

Orion Pictures

Orion Pictures

Now, I know what you’re thinking- “Drew, if you continued to eat your own poo, what would happen?” But what I want you to think is “couldn’t a sentient computer program other computers to be evil?” Yeah, I guess. But THAT computer would have to be programmed to be able to program other computers to be evil. It’s highly unlikely. Now what about a computer who isn’t evil, but just conflicted? Well, it certainly could be possible. But as far back as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, humanity has thought to include a set of supercedent rules such that no robot is able to harm a human being. Boom. All other things are second to that. So again, unless someone deliberately programs a computer to be able to hurt a human, it’s unlikely to happen. Now, true, there still could be a problem if there are massive bugs in the code, but that’s less malevolence and more carelessness.

MGM Pictures

MGM Pictures

You missed a comma.

Space Travel

Realistically? Largely impossible without “generation ships,” ships where people are born, die, and generations upon generations later, they may eventually land on another planet. But even still, those generations would be mutated lobster babies. Stars put off a ton of potentially harmful radiation- usually the earth’s ionosphere, atmosphere, and magnetic fields protect us. In space, however, those would go largely unblocked. Not only that, but the closest star is still 4.3 lightyears away. If faster-than-light travel were possible, it wouldn’t be that terrible (though road trip “I spy” games would get repetitive). But with our present propulsion systems, it would take about 165,000 years to get there- that’s only a little less than homo sapiens have existed on this planet. And that’s not even considering the issue of fuel.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And that Queen playlist isn’t going to last.

Planetary travel would be a lot more possible and successful. Sure, the radiation would still be a problem- but so would the other damn people. Even if you don’t have social anxiety, being with the same crew of people for the some 6-12 months it takes to get to Mars. The Russians stuck a bunch of Cosmonauts into a trailer to simulate it for 17 months and the dudes just became lazy space-couch potatoes with terrible insomnia- in other words, Reddditors.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to send our robot brained-selves to other planets and other stars and simply transmit our minds and memories out to them, but for now, all we can do is look up and look inward and wonder.

My review column: Mindless Action Mondays

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