Ultron, cyber veins, and the human brain

The idea that humans are just biological computers is not new – it’s been around for quite some time. We get inputs about external stimuli with our five senses, do some processing in the brain, and then take some action with our motor system aka muscles. However, the notion that humans are more than just biological entities – that is, biological+digital – is still rudimentary, but rapidly evolving. 

Mainstream media got the scoop on this one. One example: in the Avengers movie series, Vision (aka good Jarvis) and Ultron (aka bad Jarvis) comprise the symbiosis of biological+digital in a most dramatic way. Their digital alter egos have the ability to manifest globally via the internet on demand. 

While our reality isn’t as fantastic as a superhero movie series’, some themes from that series are not too far fetched. We can already make our “presence” felt globally at a moment’s notice – enter social media. Controlling heavy earth machinery with the tap of a finger on a screen? No problem. Guiding thousands of tonnes of steel in the ocean with a computer terminal? Yes please. 

It’s not too absurd then to suggest that our consciousness is our ruler supreme, right? We think our thoughts based on what we receive as inputs, and then act out on them with various end effectors – starting at a human body’s limbs, continuing through the world’s most powerful computers and machines. 

This concept of treating the physical human body as nothing but a vessel being driven by our brain’s thoughts is fascinating to me. Makes me think all I’m doing bumbling through my week is just guiding my body through the motions – eating, walking, talking, writing, and a lot of other preventative maintenance. It’s like playing Grand Theft Auto in real life – you look at and guide your avatar from a third person point of view while it completes its missions. 

I’d argue that, by extension, I should also be able to prevent my body, my vessel, from doing stupid things, no? After all, thoughts and habits are just chemical synapses strengthened in the brain by repetition over time. I indulge in much self-destructive behavior – eating junk, watching trash television – even if it seems innocuous at the onset. 

But as a human being, I literally have the ability to think about my thoughts and course correct. Sounds recursive, and that’s because it is. Mind over body, but also mind over mind. 

At Tesla, I work with the wire harness design engineering group. A friend of mine once said that wire harnesses are like the veins of the car. Such an accurate analogy! They keep the electricity flowing, connecting all devices and assemblies. 

Our digital presence is similar – it comprises our cyber veins. Our whole sum – our physical body – is nothing but a vessel to sync our brain’s thoughts to the rest of humanity’s brain-collective. Such a powerful concept. The problem is that our human hardware is becoming rapidly outdated. Seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling, and using our muscles – all have severe limitations in their rate of data transfer. You can only type or talk so fast.

Of course we have data transfer boosters in the form of high performance external devices such as smartphones, spectacles, laptops – the list is endless. The problem with these external devices is precisely that – they are external to the human body. These devices still need to work with our five senses, which themselves are super slow. The chainlink is only as strong as its weakest link. Even though our speed of thought is pretty high, our interfacing mechanisms of communication with the outside world – typing, talking, hearing, watching, etc – are pretty slow. 

Enter Neuralink. And Elon. And his hyper-realistic conception of Neuralink’s brain machine interface. He continuously talks about the necessity of having a high bandwidth interface with the brain’s cortex. I’m skirting the boundaries of what Neuralink does, but this piece is not about that detail. Its summary is important though. To oversimplify one of Neuralink’s primary objectives: let’s bypass the shitty / slow stuff – eyes, ears, fingertips, etc – and get to the good stuff directly – the brain. And then connect the brain directly to an internet computer for high-speed data transfer. 

All his other ventures are about what humans can do. But Neuralink is about what humans can be

The possibilities are mind-bending, and heavily question the definition of what a human being is. Imagine a scenario where you can connect your brain to external devices directly. Want to look at something? Don’t need the human eyes, just connect to an external high-resolution camera. Better yet, why not add some UV and IR cameras while you’re at it to capture electromagnetic waves outside of the visible spectrum as well? 

In this reality, you would be able to listen to music without audio, feel things without touching, taste things without eating – you get the idea. At the end of the day, everything is just data for the brain to interpret. As long as you have these data via electronic signals, you can fire your brain’s chemical synapses at will. 

A few years ago, I read this book by Robin Cook simply titled ‘Brain’. I’ll spare you from its disturbing dystopian plot about brain theft from unwilling medical patients. One gruesome scene is worth talking about though. 

In this scene, a patient has her nervous system ‘stolen’ by a crazy doctor, who hooks ‘her’ up to his secret lab equipment. I say ‘stolen’ instead of ‘killed’ because her nervous system is kept alive, suspended in a vat of liquid, and is then connected to a computer. A series of experiments are run on ‘her’ (that is, on her isolated brain and nervous system). And as a method of positive reinforcement, ‘she’ is fed feelings of sexual arousal to keep her motivated (that is, electrical impulses to the correct parts of the brain) to participate in the experiments. 

Horror movies don’t always scare me easily; sometimes I think they’re just comical. I visualize the actors in studio lighting wearing fake blood make-up – absolutely hilarious. But it’s stories like Robin Cook’s Brain that scare me often, because they’re not that far from reality. It’s the same with Black Mirror – keeps you on your toes throughout, because its settings are not that hard to imagine. Which means that they can and may happen someday. The future’s going to be weird, oof.

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