[EDITOR'S NOTE: I originally wrote this piece about two years ago. What brought it up was finding the following link *today* which seems to bring it closer to fruition:
]Page not found | MIT Technology Review
I was having a conversation with a co-worker about how she had had car problems, and the remote call centers in Tennessee and Texas were able to locate her car remotely in Minnesota by using the GPS on her cell phone. She segued from this to how one is able to log into HULU on one’s I-phone, wirelessly broadcast it within the car, and to play the soundtrack for the TV show which is playing on one’s I-phone across the car speakers.
I put two and two together and got approximately six million, coming up on the spot with a tremendous idea for a sci-fi thriller.
Hang on, it’s going to be quite a ride.
First, we must touch back to an earlier point on the conversation, when she mentioned her husband was into science fiction, and liked the (alas, atheist!) science fiction author Isaac Asimov, whom I had also read in my misguided youth.
One of his stories (which I have linked below) is called “Button, Button.” It is told as the memoirs of a nephew of a brilliant but...shall we say, eccentric scientist named Otto Schlemmelmayer. His idea was to reverse-engineer Einstein’s matter-into-energy by converting energy into matter: and his trick was to use his device to recreate, exactly, on an atom-for-atom basis, the original signature of one of the signers of the American Declaration of Independence, Button Gwinnett. The trick works, with the author admitting that
Do you remember the time a few weeks back when all of .upper Manhattan and the Bronx were without electricity for twelve hours because of the damndest overload cut-off in the main power-house. I won't say we did that, because I am in no mood to be sued for damages. But I will say this. The electricity went off when my uncle Otto turned the third knob.
But actually, the trick doesn’t work, because nobody can accept that the signature is genuine.
The story ends like this:
My uncle Otto, took a slow drag at the cigar. He said, "The man at the Bureau of Documents came to me and said, 'Professor Schlemmelmayer,' he said, 'you are the victim of a clever fraud.', I said, 'So? And how can it a fraud be? The signature a forgery is ?' So he answered, 'It certainly doesn't look like a forgery, but it must be!' 'And why must it be?' I asked."
My uncle Otto’s voice switched gears and became a dull, throbbing roar, “And if Button Gwinnett in 1777 died, you Godforsaken dunderlump, how can an authentic signature of his on new parchment be found?”
After that it was just a case of the whole world rushing backward and forward about me.
I expect to be on my feet soon. I still ache, but the doctors tell me no bones were broken.
Still, my uncle Otto didn’t have to make me swallow the damned parchment.
Now, the interesting thing about the story is a mere side element -- in order to safeguard his other inventions, Professor Schlemmelmayer has invented a *thought lock*:
He looked at me slyly, his huge nose wrinkling into a sniff. "It is locked. With a Schlemmelmayer relay, it's locked. ' I think a word—and the' door opens. Without it, nobody can get in.Not even the President of the University. Not even the janitor." I got a little excited, "Great guns.Uncle Otto. A thought-lock could bring you—"
"Hah! I should sell the patent for someone else rich to get? After last night ? Never. In a while, I will myself rich become."
Naturally, this Schlemmelmayer effect was reversed engineered for military uses:
Then, five years ago, this, young fellow at Consolidated Arms, Stephen Wheland, modified the Schlemmelmayer Effect and reversed it. He devised a field of supersonic waves that could activate the brain via a germanium relay, fry it, and kill a rat at twenty feet. Also, they found out later, men.
"Button, Button", by Isaac Asimov, Startling Stories, January 1953, pp. 74-82
Now, the first link from this, to my story, is found in an article describes two lab rats whose brains were wired together electronically so they could command each others’ bodies; later, thie interface was tested at longer distances.
BBC News - One rat brain 'talks' to another using electronic link (1)
The next ingredient was this story, which allows electronic interfaces to the brain to be made *wirelessly*:
A Wireless Brain-Computer Interface May One Day Help People with Mobility Problems | MIT Technology Review (2)
And the final ingredient is this -- in which researchers are able to *read the contents* of the human brain by scanning it, to tell what people are thinking.
Brain Scans Show Who You're Thinking About - Business Insider (3)
Putting these all together -- we have the following idea for a diabolical device at the center of a first-rate spy thriller.
Use the Schlemmelmayer relay to capture brain waves and thoughts; send them over an encrypted link to remote location where it is transmitted via iPhone to audiovisual system and archived; your very thoughts can be captured in real time and stored with digital, photographic accuracy.
The movie would also include a scene inside the bad guys’ hideout with a massively parallel supercomputer supercomputer to do real-time Pet scan / MRI / similar scanning, to *imprint* thoughts / emotions in head ; supercomputer enables sub-millimeter-scale resolution of brain mapping in real time to allow *precise* targeting of EM field to active specific parts ofbrain for the individual; the “climactic” scene would be the person frantically trying to shake their head in order to try to throw off the calibration of the machine and even, just for a moment, to free themselves.
Maybe a title like “The Spellcasters.” Don’t have the rest of the plot or how the plotters are defeated yet. Perhaps one of the heroes is autistic or has another disorder, such that there are secondary pathways or structures inside the brain -- and the people who wrote the software for the scanning / mind control program did not think of this possibility, so the person can hide / plot / retain some of their individuality and escape.
In this connection, it’s worth checking out the teenage novel by the author Madeleine L’Engle, The Arm of The Starfish, in which a scientist controls gang members in New York by wielding a “magic wand” which directly stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain by transmitted electronic waves.
And my co-worker pointed out to me that one of the other uses of reading others’ thoughts would be on sites like eHarmony.com (“find out what they’re REALLY thinking about you”) -- which brings to mind the closing sentence of another Asimov science fiction short story in which someone recreates a machine, not for time travel, but for viewing the past. It’s called The Dead Past.
That story ends like this:
"When people think of the past, they think of it as dead, far away and gone, long ago. We encourage them to think so. When we report time viewing, we always talk of views centuries in the past, even though you gentlemen know seeing more than a century or so is impossible.People accept it. The past means Greece, Rome, Carthage, Egypt, the Stone Age. The deader the better. "Now you three know a century or a little more is the limit, so what does the past mean to you? Your youth. Your first girl. Your dead mother. Twenty years ago. Thirty years ago. Fifty years ago. The deader the better. . . . But when does the past really begin?"He paused in anger. The others stared at him and Nimmo stirred uneasily.
"Well," said Araman, "when did it begin? A year ago? Five minutes ago? One second ago? Isn't it obvious that the past begins an instant ago? The dead past is just another name for the living present. What if you focus the chronoscope in the past of one-hundredth of a second ago? Aren't you watching the present? Does it begin to sink in?
"Nimmo said, "Damnation."
"Damnation," mimicked Araman. "After Potterley came to me with his story night before last, how do you suppose I checked up on both of you? I did it with the chronoscope, spotting key moments to the very instant of the present."
"And that's how you knew about the safety-deposit box?" said Foster.
"And every other important fact. Now what do you suppose would happen if we let news of a home chronoscope get out? People might start out by watching their youth, their parents and so on, but it wouldn't be long before they'd catch on to the possibilities. The housewife will forget her poor, dead mother and take to watching her neighbor at home and her husband at the office. The businessman will watch his competitor; the employer his employee. "There will be no such thing as privacy. The party line, the prying eye behind the curtain will be nothing compared to it. The video stars will be closely watched at all times by everyone. Every man his own peeping Tom and there'll be no getting away from the watcher. Even darkness will be no escape because chronoscopy can be adjusted to the infrared and human figures can be seen by their own body heat. The figures will be fuzzy, of course, and the surroundings will be dark, but that will make the titillation of it all the greater, perhaps. . . .Hmp, the men in charge of the machine now experiment sometimes in spite of the regulations against it."
Nimmo seemed sick. "You can always forbid private manufacture-"
Araman turned on him fiercely. "You can, but do you expect it to do good? Can you legislate successfully against drinking, smoking, adultery or gossiping over the back fence? And this mixture of nosiness and prurience will have a worse grip on humanity than any of those. Good Lord, in a thousand years of trying we haven't even been able to wipe out the heroin traffic and you talk about legislating against a device for watching anyone you please at any time you please that can be built in a home workshop."
"Too late," said Nimmo, shrugging. "They've had better than a day. There's been time for the word to spread. My outfits will have called any number of physicists to check my data before going on with it and they'll call one another to pass on the news. Once scientists put neutrinics and pseudo-gravities together, home chronoscopy becomes obvious. Before the week is out, five hundred people will know how to build a small chronoscope and how will you catch them all?" His plum cheeks sagged. "I suppose there's no way of putting the mushroom cloud back into that nice, shiny uranium sphere."
Araman stood up. "We'll try, Potterley, but I agree with Nimmo. It's too late. What kind of a world we'll have from now on, I don't know, I can't tell, but the world we know has been destroyed completely. Until now, every custom, every habit, every tiniest way of life has always taken a certain amount of privacy for granted, but that's all gone now."
He saluted each of the three with elaborate formality.
"You have created a new world among the three of you. I congratulate you. Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, and may each of you fry in hell forever. Arrest rescinded."
(1) Scientists have connected the brains of lab rats, allowing one to communicate directly to another via cables.
The wired brain implants allowed sensory and motor signals to be sent from one rat to another, creating the first ever brain-to-brain interface.
The scientists then tested whether the rat receiving the signal could correctly interpret the information.
As the ultimate test of their system, the team even linked the brains of rats that were thousands of miles apart.
(2) A new wireless brain implant could be an important step toward technology that lets people with mobility problems control a computer or wheelchair with their thoughts.
The implant was developed by a team at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The researchers recently reported in the Journal of Neural Engineering that their fully implantable brain sensor can record the activity of dozens of neurons in freely moving subjects. And they showed that the device continued to work after more than a year in pigs and macaques.
The next goal for the team is to test the device in humans. The promise of brain sensors that help paralyzed people regain some mobility is slowly being realized: last year, two groups reported that quadriplegic volunteers had used brain implants to control robotic arms (see “Brain Chip Helps Quadriplegics Move Robotic Arms with Their Thoughts” and “Patient Shows New Dexterity with a Mind-Controlled Robot Arm”).
“We are trying to develop devices to connect the brain back again to the outside world or to the body,” says John Donoghue, a neuroscientist at Brown, who led one of the projects involving quadriplegics but was not involved with the new work. “Currently, this is set up with a plug in the head through a hole in the skin,” he says. This is cumbersome and introduces the risk of infection. Furthermore, it requires a technician to hook the patient up to the external equipment. If these kinds of systems are to become available to paralyzed people in their homes (still a far-off prospect), then a fully implanted, wireless device will be needed, says Donoghue.
But it is challenging to make a device that is small enough to be implanted and yet powerful enough to send the large volumes of data collected in the brain over a wireless connection, says Arto Nurmikko, an electrical and neuro-engineer at Brown and the senior author on the study.
Nurmikko and his team had to pack a battery, a copper coil for recharging, a wireless radio and infrared transmitters, and custom-designed signal-processing chips into a small, leak-proof, body-friendly container. The titanium can that holds all these components is a little more than two inches long and is designed to sit above the skull but below the skin. A 100-electrode neuron-reading chip is implanted directly into the brain and sends the information it records through fine wires to the rest of the gadgetry. The device, which can transmit the data wirelessly, can be recharged through the skin by inductive coupling, similar to the system used in many electric toothbrushes.
The researchers tested the device in two pigs and two macaques, recording the activity of the brain regions with the implants about once per week for a year. Over the year, the performance of the electrodes diminished, which is consistent with previous reports on the longevity of the recording devices. But the researchers could not detect any electronic leakage from the titanium case.
The wireless signals emitted by the device were detected by a nearby receiver. “The strategy here is to have the subject or future patient a few meters away from the electronics that contain the receivers and means of decoding the full language of the brain circuitry that you are monitoring,” says Nurmikko. He says the device can wirelessly transmit up to tens of megabits of data per second.
Before this device can be used in people, it will have to undergo safety testing and earn regulatory approval both for its electrical elements and for the materials that touch the body. In the meantime, the technology could help neuroscientists better study brain activity and related behavior in freely moving lab animals. “This opens up a very interesting way to naturalistically study brain circuits that has not been available before,” says Nurmikko.
(3) Scientists scanning the human brain can now tell whom a person is thinking of, the first time researchers have been able to identify what people are imagining from imaging technologies.
Work to visualize thought is starting to pile up successes. Recently, scientists have used brain scans to decode imagery directly from the brain, such as what number people have just seen and what memory a person is recalling.
They can now even reconstruct videos of what a person has watched based on their brain activity alone. Cornell University cognitive neuroscientist Nathan Spreng and his colleagues wanted to carry this research one step further by seeing if they could deduce the mental pictures of people that subjects conjure up in their heads.
“We are trying to understand the physical mechanisms that allow us to have an inner world, and a part of that is how we represent other people in our mind,” Spreng says.
His team first gave 19 volunteers descriptions of four imaginary people they were told were real. Each of these characters had different personalities. Half the personalities were agreeable, described as liking to cooperate with others; the other half were less agreeable, depicted as cold and aloof or having similar traits. In addition, half these characters were described as outgoing and sociable extroverts, while the others were less so, depicted as sometimes shy and inhibited. The scientists matched the genders of these characters to each volunteer and gave them popular names like Mike, Chris, Dave or Nick, or Ashley, Sarah, Nicole or Jenny.
The researchers then scanned volunteers’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. During the scans, the investigators asked participants to predict how each of the four fictitious people might behave in a variety of scenarios — for instance, if they were at a bar and someone else spilled a drink, or if they saw a homeless veteran asking for change.
“Humans are social creatures, and the social world is a complex place,” Spreng says. “A key aspect to navigating the social world is how we represent others.”
The scientists discovered that each of the four personalities were linked to unique patterns of brain activity in a part of the organ known as the medial prefrontal cortex. In other words, researchers could tell whom their volunteers were thinking about.
“This is the first study to show that we can decode what people are imagining,” Spreng says.
Unlocking brain’s personality models
The medial prefrontal cortex helps people deduce traits about others. These findings suggest this region is also where personality models are encoded, assembled and updated, helping people understand and predict the likely behavior of others and prepare for the future.
“The scope of this is incredible when you think of all the people you meet over the course of your life and are able to remember. Each one probably has its own unique representation in the brain,” Spreng says. “This representation can be modified as we share experiences and learn more about each other, and plays into how we imagine future events with others unfolding.”
The anterior medial prefrontal cortex is also linked to autism and other disorders in which people have problems with social interactions. These findings suggest people with such disorders may suffer from an inability to build accurate personality models of others. Further research could not only help diagnose these diseases, but also help treat such disorders, researchers say.