In the real world, there are amazing advances that enable paraplegics to control the environment around them. In 2012 in the UK, a woman had an aspirin-sized array of electrodes implanted in her brain which picked up signals from neurons in her motor cortex enabling her to control a robotic arm. In sci-fi movies, humans interfacing with technology has brought about a variety of dystopian scenarios from (the now somewhat laughable) Saturn 3, to (the now very laughable) Lawnmower Man, as well as the Matrix movies and the more recent Transcendance.
One of the best books about the future development of humanity is Damien Broderick’s The Last Mortal Generation. It explores not only how the life of our physical body can be extended, but also how technology might free the mind from its time-limited physical form. The mind is the key to so much — our emotions and sense of self. What would it be like to transplant your mind outside of its fleshy architecture into the elegant symmetry of a computer? Would you feel any different if your brain was replaced neuron by neuron by ‘silicon brain cells’? Would you lose your humanity? What about extending the reach of your mind resting within its physical confines by hooking it up to a wider cognitive network that’s faster, richer, and electronic?
In Horizon, Systems Specialist Bren Thurgood is among the first couple of generations of transhumans: people who accept an implant that allows them to interface with computerised and artificial intelligence systems. It makes her very good at what she does, and she’s an indispensable member of the crew. However even though I’m an optimist, I find it hard to imagine a future where humanity doesn’t attack what’s different in society. And given the current controversy about metadata and government snooping, I think the reasons behind a widespread mistrust of transhumans are compounded. They are ‘creatures of the internet’, able to breach firewalls and hack sensitive systems as easily as breathing. As a result, ‘chipheads’ are the target of racist — or maybe that should be ‘specist’ — intolerance from the ‘norms’.
I think the most interesting aspect of interfacing directly with the electronic world, the world of data and numbers, is how our minds would interpret and present that augmented reality to us. We’re not digital, we’re analogue, which means — perhaps — we’ll take a figurative rather than literal approach to the datastream. Bren explains it best:
Lex pressed the patches to her temples and flicked the monitor into life. He picked up a metallic wand. ‘You shouldn’t feel any discomfort. I’m just going to send a range of harmonics through the soft tissue and see what the sensors pick up.’ He touched her chin and turned her head to the left. The wand hummed in his hand. ‘What’s it like anyway, the link?’
Bren snorted and a smile spread across her face. ‘You don’t know how many times I’ve been asked that.’
‘Then you should have a good answer.’
She turned towards him and he gently turned her head back into position. ‘A lot of people can’t get used to it. There’s the increased cognitive capacity, of course. You’re totally aware — of everything. When you’re linked, you can instantly understand concepts, complex equations, programming, the works. You access information, formulate solutions, in the blink of an eye. But the perception change can really get to you. Some things you encounter are actual representations, like when I saw Phillips in the ring. Some things you can template and construct yourself. But every now and then something will come at you that’s totally figurative.
Like the interface has tapped into your subconscious imagery and selected something that embodies completely what you’re experiencing intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually. It can freak you out if you’re not used to it.’
‘Like that package ticking?’
‘Yeah, but that’s a simple example.’
‘Look to the right, please,’ Lex said and swapped the wand to his other hand.
‘Anyway, it’s helped me become more than I ever could be. But Harris and people like him will never understand. And they’ll never trust what they don’t understand.’
No matter how augmented they become, I believe transhumans will retain their own human and individual ways of looking at the world. It may have to work that way to prevent their brains from overloading. It’s a fascinating concept to think about, and it almost makes me wish all this was a reality right now.