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.