O Brave New World

There’s an item in the news today about “neurosecurity”: the need to protect “neural devices” — computerized electronic machinery designed to interact directly with the human brain — from unauthorized manipulation.

The creation of technology to provide direct interfaces betweens computers and brains is a rapidly evolving field, but the effort so far has concentrated, understandably enough, on getting it to work at all, not getting it to work behind a firewall. The possibilities are exciting, and virtually limitless: one can imagine computers without displays or keyboards, with commands given to the machine as mere thoughts, and the computer’s output rendered directly into the user’s sensory perception. The human brain could be directly and seamlessly coupled, not only to an “onboard” computer, with all its brute power of processing and memory retrieval, but also to the Internet, with all that would mean in terms of information access and peer-to-peer communication.

I will confess that I find these possibilities tremendously exciting — as a lifelong, obsessive consumer of information, already it is hard for me to imagine how I managed to live, for the first three or four decades of my life, without the Internet — but it is certainly true that such advances would be radically transformative, in ways that we can and cannot foresee. At the far end of the spectrum of possibilities, it is easy to imagine that for each human to become a living node of the Internet could pave the way for the death of the individual mind, and the coalescence of the human race into a superorganism that, while still biologically distributed, would nevertheless form a cognitive unity (as imagined, in the Star Trek television series, of the “hive mind” know as the Borg).

Nearer to home is the risk of abuse by governments and corporations, in the form not only of invasive snooping, but perhaps also of direct control. One of the topics raised in the article is the possibility of hacking a neurological interface to provide direct stimulation to the brain’s reward centers — electrical activation of which has been shown to provide such direct pleasure as to pre-empt just about everything else the brain might be inclined to do. (For a chilling glimpse, see here.) That ready access to such stimulation would become enormously, and destructively, popular, was foreseen by the science-fiction writer Larry Niven in his 1968 story Death By Ecstasy, in which a man is murdered by having such a device (for which Niven coined the term “droud”) attached to his head, with a power cord too short to allow him to move without unplugging it. Unable to bring himself to stop the flow of current, the man starves to death. Niven imagines a culture of pleasure-center addicts called “wireheads’; it is also easy to see that with all of us wired into the network through electronic filaments reaching into various parts of our brains, there are equally ominous prospects for control and manipulation. An advertisment accompanied by a surreptitious trickle to the pleasure center would surely be highly effective, as would a government warning accompanied by a frisson of dread.

Like it or not, enormous changes are coming.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    The “droud” became the “tasp” in Niven’s other writings (specifically, the Ringworld novels): a weapon used by the Puppeteers to neutralize opponents. The weapon’s beam was calibrated to stimulate the pleasure centers of various alien species’ brains. The funniest use was on a Kzin, an alien that is basically a sentient lion or tiger. The Kzin in question had been readying itself to spring on a Puppeteer, but was reduced to purring loudly. If I’m not mistaken, the protagonist of the Ringworld stories, Louis Wu, became a wirehead in the second novel. He had also somehow found enough time away from self-stimulation to learn martial arts. I don’t remember whether this was ever explained.

    Posted July 12, 2009 at 10:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    I do remember the tasp, though not the Kzin – Puppeteer encounter you mention. (I never read the sequel to Ringworld.) Niven has a remarkable imagination.

    What great coinages, by the way: “droud” and “tasp”.

    Posted July 12, 2009 at 10:41 pm | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    Whoops — I wrote “sentient,” but should have written “sapient.” Alas. Buddhists would say that our earth’s lions and tigers are plenty sentient. I imagine scientists would say so, too, depending on how sentience is defined.

    Yeah, I like “droud” and “tasp.” I must say, I also prefer Niven’s older writings to his more recent efforts. I tried reading Ringworld Throne, the third Ringworld novel, written many years after the first two novels, but found it unreadable. By contrast, Niven’s 80s-era novel The Integral Trees was a great riff off the ringworld concept, as was its sequel, The Smoke Ring.


    Posted July 13, 2009 at 3:31 am | Permalink