The March of Science, a blessing or curse, and Artificial Telepathy

The introduction to this essay is obviously not finished, and the entire thing is about at the second draft stage.

All of the below is Copyright 1999 Adrian Hon.

Intro: Long entrenched debate. Extreme examples are scientists who conduct new research without thought of consequences, and luddites. More conservative are those who point to widespread benefits.

If you look at it one way, science and technology are essentially a means of developing ways in which we can change our environment to suit our needs. These needs often include the need for food, the need for heat, the need for entertainment and so on. As science progresses further and further, we discover improved methods of satisfying these needs, such as by developing farming, then irrigation and fertilisation, then mechanisation and computerisation. Take entertainment as another example; at first we only could amuse ourselves with ‘physical’ objects such as balls and sports, then we developed radios, televisions, computer games and virtual reality.

However, our needs are not always so benign. Sometimes our most pressing need is the need to survive against aggressors. All other needs are subordinate to survival; after all, what use is having a highly developed culture when you have no means of defending yourself against the country next door who’s just developed gunpowder?

So often we see science as a way of creating ever more deadly weapons to ensure our survival. In fact, we even map out our history according to new arms developments; the turning points of history are entwined with the invention of the catapult, the cannon, gunpowder, submarines, fighters and bombers, V2 rockets, nuclear bombs and most recently space-based and airborne laser strategic defence.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. The march of science proceeded relatively steadily up until the Renaissance. Still, progress was comparatively slow.

With the advent of steam power, mass production and mechanisation, larger quantities of more sophisticated machinery and weaponry could be produced. Rifles, cannons, ploughs, etc. The Industrial Revolution also freed up more people to conduct scientific research, using the new more accurate equipment. All this served to accelerate research. International trade was increasing steadily, and so competition between countries encouraged new methods to be invented. A burst of scientific advances were begun.

More refined technologies brought huge improvements in the quality of life, but also in weapons of mass destruction. Explosives and vacuum cleaners, artillery and the microwave oven. Accurate and sophisticated theories about the nature of the universe were thought up, and then World War 2 started.

Thus began the Nuclear Age – you could also call it the Age of Fear. Nuclear weapons, electronics, computers. From then on, scientific research progressed at an exponential rate. Moreover, computing power increased with great strides, quality of life soared. Automobiles, televisions, hi-fis, telephones all improved our lives. Long range bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, neutron bombs and cruise missiles were all designed to destroy others.

Throughout history, science and technology have proved to be a see-saw of sorts, with the ups and downs, benefits and disadvantages, increasing with time. Today, our quality of life in first-world countries is comparatively excellent - life expectancy is high, general affluence is high, entertainment is readily available. But also we live with the terrible, ever present knowledge that one skirmish, one conflict, one mistake, could destroy the delicate balance of the see-saw and our weapons are such that, if used, they could render the Earth uninhabitable. Terrorists can purchase biological weapons that could wipe out entire cities, millions of people. Before, conflict only concerned a few dozen or hundred people with swords or spears, or a few thousand people with rifles. In the 20th century, tens of millions of people have died in violent wars.

We pay the price for our improved lives in blood and fear; maybe it’s worth it, maybe it isn’t. But all the same, there is a price.

Along with the price, there is also hope that we can get off the see-saw. In recent years, there has been a new, relatively unpredicted, trend – the rapid increase in international communications via the Internet. The Internet is merely the precursor of a far greater socio-economic paradigm shift. Already, computing and communications technology have advanced to the point that we can converse with anyone else across the world - we are no longer reliant on media-disseminated information - we can judge for ourselves who the true oppressed and oppressors are. Even if we cannot empathise with foreigners, at least we can talk to them.

As communications have advanced, we have continually cut back on the number of intermediaries between the people involved in the conversation, and increased the ‘bandwidth’ of the communication, and consequently the intimacy.

Technology can provide us with the final word in communications – first we communicated by writing, with our hands. Then we used on mouths, and our bodies. But when you penetrate to the heart of communication, it’s the exchange of thoughts between individuals that matters, not ink on paper or vibrations in the air. Thus, for the most accurate, and the most ‘distilled’ form of communication, we would talk to each other, directly from brain to brain. This is the point where you start thinking that the author of this document has been reading too many science-fiction novels.

In this case, you would be correct. But after reading these novels, I was intrigued as to whether this direct brain communication, artificial telepathy, was scientifically and technically possible. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) enough, it was.

A mind-machine interface, or a direct brain link, is not merely science fiction. Last year researchers succeeded in interfacing a ??disabled/paralysed?? individual with a computer so that he could move an arrow about on a screen, allowing him to communicate when he could never have before. Admittedly, this is some way off from artificial telepathy, but it demonstrates the principles behind the idea – that we can control machines through thought.

The researchers mentioned are not alone in their task of linking the brain to computers. The BT Technology Labs confidently asserted that in roughly 30 years time, we will possess the technology to record an person's entire memories - their personality - on a single device. They called it the Soul Catcher, a name which will enthral the public. In an interview with BT’s Futurologist, Ian Pearson, he remarked, "My generation will probably be the last to die fully, which annoys me intensely."

With artificial telepathy, we will be able to truly experience life in someone else's shoes, to truly see another person's viewpoint. We will be able to experience their emotions, to understand and empathise with them. The consequences of such a technology would be staggering to say the least, and unpredictable. It may be too much to say that we would never have a war again after the advent of mass artificial telepathy, but every increase in communications and understandings between peoples have always proved beneficial to peace.

Artificial telepathy would not be a wholly new technology - rather, the convergence of many other technologies which are generally perceived as unrelated.

Computers with processing powers that are orders of magnitude greater than what we have now would be required to interpret and convey the masses of information between brains thousands of kilometres apart - but we already are researching optical, biological and even quantum-based computers. For a down to Earth example, IPv6 allows computers to address every brain cell on Earth many times over, an essential component of a direct brain link.

We would require a greater knowledge of the operation of the brain - but with improved instruments such as super-detailed 3D NMR scanners, surely this goal is not too far away. Finally, we would need to create a means of manufacturing a direct brain link - a device unimaginably small and intricate. DERA (Defence Evaluation and Research Agency) has already linked nerve cells directly to silicon chips without rejection, a key first step, but we are still some way off from being able build a device that could interface with billions of neurones. Such a feat of engineering would be impossible - that is, if we discounted nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is a controversial field - some argue that it is merely the realm of science fiction writers who use it as a poor plot device to create machines out of thin air. Others argue that the science fiction writers don't have enough imagination. Nanotechnlogy is basically the manipulation of matter on the atomic scale. Sounds ridiculous? Not really, as IBM researchers managed to spell out three letters (guess which ones) in individual atoms. That was several years ago. Active research into nanotechnology is being conducted at several university across the world, such as…

Of artificial telepathy, Ian comments, "Nothing in physics clearly opposes such a development so it may well happen." Not only will our generation experience artificial telepathy, but numerous other benefits of science. "Timescales are uncertain but if you are at school now, by the time you retire you will be probably be able to back up your mind on a computer and achieve effective immortaility among many other benefits, such as speed of light travel, massively enhanced intelligence and knowledge, telepathy and so on," he adds.

Perhaps, with the ultimate convergence of the different strands of science, and the convergence of technology and humans, science has the opportunity to improve our lives forever. Instead of pushing people apart with weapons of mass destruction, scientists must seek to realise the dream that we are truly one people, no matter the colour, race, country, or blood shed between us. Artificial telepathy can make that dream become reality. Unfortunately, as with other technologies, artificial telepathy will not please everyone – it may not please many people at all, as it did in one of the science fiction novels that inspired me to write this article.

In Peter F. Hamilton’s novella, A Second Chance at Eden, a scientist develops a method to create artificial telepathy, or ‘affinity’ in the 2058. The repercussions on society are tremendous; the workers in the habitat Eden, where affinity is first used participate in communal telepathy, letting others feel their emotions. Crime plummets and a harmony sets in. Children born with the affinity gene spliced in show completely balanced personalities as they open their minds to each other. One person says "This is Eden, only one step down from paradise."

All good things come to an end; the Church decries affinity as the Edenists become supremely confident in themselves, psychologically strong to the point of denying the existence of God. When the creator of the affinity gene dies, and ‘uploads’ his memories and personality into the habitat neural network, the Pope denounces affinity and excommunicates any Christians who involve themselves in affinity in any way. She claims that the continuation of personality after death is blasphemous, an attempt to avoid judgement by God. The Edenists on the other hand revel in their new security of knowing life will go on after death.

Will this same situation occur in real life? Certainly it is not unrealistic, and we can imagine that many religions will have strong objections about artificial telepathy, and the promise of immortality that comes with it. Not only would there be religious objections, but moral objections. There will be those who cry out against artificial telepathy using brain implants – saying that we are losing our humanity, and becoming machines. This is not true. We would be in control of our brain implants as much as we are in control of our computers; they are tools to be used, not malevolent intelligences.

They would say that we would lose our individuality and society would become homogenised. As for losing our individuality, on the contrary, we are expanding it. There is a difference between homogenisation and communication, and it is easy to mistake understanding and empathy for the former. We have nothing to lose, but everything to gain with artificial telepathy, for what greater beauty is there than to be able to touch another soul?