CXO investigate

Tech mind control? It's not what you might think

We should keep an open mind on what technology can and can't do, and focus on benefits. Always looking for science and tech horror stories is in no one's interest.

Ignorance and sensationalism often drive negative reactions to science and technological advances. Photo: Shutterstock

Written in Tallinn, Estonia, and dispatched a day later from a hotel via a free wi-fi service at 2.7Mbps.

Throughout my life I have been wowed by technology. Last year I stood on top of a nuclear reactor. I was pulled across the floor by a superconducting magnet. I saw atoms being manipulated. I watched an iron atom fold oxygen into haemoglobin.

This year I've had my hands on Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2. I've seen inter-vertebral discs manufactured using injection molding. I've witnessed the fine-tuning of the human brain to suppress unwanted physical tremors. And I've observed a degree of direct animal-to-animal mind control.

Here are those two brain experiments in a nutshell.

Brain experiment 1

A world-class violinist developed an involuntary muscle tremor and could no longer play a continuous note. A surgeon operated on the musician's brain while the violinist was awake and able to draw his bow across a string. Fine-tuning the location of a gold wire deep in his brain to deliver corrective electrical impulses cured the problem and the violinist is back on the international stage.

Brain experiment 2

Two rats in two identical boxes separated by a meter or so had their brains directly wired together with 100 probes and 100 wires. Rat 1 was given a reward of food and drink in one corner and quickly moved in that direction. Rat 2 mimicked that action, even though there was no food in his box to induce his movement.

Do we know in detail what is happening in these experiments? Absolutely not. Can we use this work to enhance human life by curing muscular and nervous system diseases, and might we eventually help those with missing limbs and other prosthetics? Absolutely.

Advances of this kind assist humanity and offer the prospect of further benefits as we unravel the mysteries deep in the bio-chemistry of the human body. But what of the media and the nay-sayers?

They can be guaranteed to lock onto mind control, mind reading, and remotely-controlled people. How come? It isn't just because of science fiction, ignorance and sensationalism. More fundamentally, people just seem to love to be frightened.

As our lives have become safer and - for many - ever more boring, it seems there is some primeval need for an adrenalin rush associated with taking unnecessary risks, against real and imaginary threats.

Witness the rise of the horror movie, vampire thrillers on TV, roller-coaster rides, adventure holidays, extreme sports, and shoot-'em-up computer games.

This is not the whole picture, and there are those who actively seek the negative aspects of everything, but the real danger is not some potential horror story, but the distracting nature of futile and uninformed debate. The really interesting issues surround the benefits to those in need, and the race between engineering solutions and medical cure.

We often find ourselves in the position of being able to repair or substitute biological functionality using mechanical and electronic intervention, but the real dream is the tissue engineering of genuine replacements.

And when every component of the human body can be artificially created, and when we can communicate directly with our machines, brain to brain, then we really will have an interesting debate.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

9 comments
raticus
raticus like.author.displayName 1 Like

I feel its important to look at a new concept or a new invention, or whatever, from both sides of the coin. 1. how can it help us... 2. how can it harm us.. Only by understanding both are we working with the fullest information. The Internet is an ideal example. It has given us much but with it comes New dangers and NEW problems. So by all means, explore, invent and learn, but temper what you do, with wisdom. Just because we 'can' does not always mean we should.

peter
peter like.author.displayName 1 Like

raticus = That's what professions and professionals do....that's their job...

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Interesting article, but you glossed over the fact that most of the advances were first developed in order to have an advantage in warfare.

peter
peter

Michael = That is mostly the case with a lot of technologies - but here they came from The USA and Brazil with different motivations. But I don't mind either way...and I have a word limit !

spdragoo
spdragoo

Unless you plan on getting rid of, say, your microwave oven. Sure, the idea of a microwave oven came about because sailors in WW2 discovered that food placed too close to the radar antennae ended up getting cooked, but "based on military technology" or "funded in part by money from the military" "evil & must be cleansed from our lives".

peter
peter

spdragoo@ = And a few people got accidentally cooked too. But before this they had HF ovens too. In my life I have had one or two RF burns bt accident. The sun worries me the most though!

spdragoo
spdragoo

Especially with summer coming up, it's time for my wife to invest in more SPF 45+ sunscreen (she's had a sunburn from the sunlight coming through a car window in the past)...

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I guess that makes him the conjurers assistant. Last I saw Peter here, he was telling us how we should be upset with the EU protections of privacy, and how they're obstructing business. And that, coming from someone who used to work for a company that got involved in a very publicized privacy infringement scheme... well, it just doesn't signal "upstanding morals", does it? I remain willing to extend benefit of doubt, but the room for doubt just keeps shrinking. And now this? Shame on those who speak of human dignity in the face of progress? Poor doubt, caught in a devilish Shrinking Room -deathtrap.

peter
peter

AnsuGisalas = I actually just try to open minds to new possibilities and the pros and cons of technology. Having had to deal with a few people who had strokes or degenerative brain problems I can tell you a lot about the dangers and human dignity in some detail. I take my hat off to those trying to find a cure, those trying to engineer repairs, and those having to live with the condition. And it isn't very 'moral' to just stand and watch....so I just pitch in where my experience and talents can help.