I’ve always been fascinated with the future, both in the context of science fiction and the educated prognostications put forth by so-called Futurists (or Futurologists if you feel like pronouncing a word that sounds ridiculous). So the other night I was delighted when an interview with renowned futurist Michio Kaku came on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Throughout the interview Michio touched on an abundance of awesome futury (is that a word? it is IN THE FUTURE!) stuff including internet enabled contact lenses, computer interfaces with the human brain, and self driving cars. But the subject that left the biggest impression on me was the idea of recording and transferring memories and knowledge.
Michio Kaku - Shakes hands with robots, builds particle accelerators in his garage as a teenager, is better than you.
Apparently in the last couple months a study was performed (by scientists no less) in which the activity of a mouse’s hippocampus was recorded as it was learning to perform a specific task. That mouse was then made to forget learning that task with drugs (probably pot, RIGHT GUYS!?). Then the scientists were able to play the previously recorded memory back into the mouse’s brain, and the mouse knew how to perform the task again. This is how Kaku describes it:
“Two months ago, history was made when [scientists] were able to put a memory directly into a mouse. This is the first time in history it has been done — it’s something right out of science fiction. What they did was, they looked at the hippocampus of a mouse, and tape-recorded impulses as it learned a task. That’s the gateway for memory: All memories first go through the hippocampus. They tape-recorded the impulses. Then they gave it a chemical which made the mouse forget the task. Then they took this tape-recording, shot it back into the mouse, and the mouse immediately knew how to do the task.
“This is the first time it has been demonstrated that you can actually tape-record a memory and then reinsert the memory into a mouse and have the mouse perform the task that it previously forgot. The implications of this are enormous. … It means that memories, in principle, might be tape-recorded and then shot right back into your brain or somebody else’s brain.”
The way he keeps saying “tape-recorded” makes me picture a very serious scientist in a lab coat poking a headphone jack into a mouse’s ear. I tried google image-searching that and got nothing so I’ll just have to settle with my stupid imagination for now. Kaku went on to imagine a world where knowledge and experiences can be downloaded directly into the brain cutting out that messy process of having to actually experience or learn things on our own. That’s some damn good futurology right there.
Futurists tend to look at the utopian aspects of new technological developments, however I’m more of a science fiction minded person and therefore tend to focus on the dystopian aspects of new technologies. You see, we may be on the verge of being able to record and transfer memories and knowledge but we still have no idea how to synthetically CREATE memories or knowledge. We don’t speak brain. And, according to Michio Kaku himself, the technology necessary to speak brain is several decades away.
So now imagine a world in the relatively near future in which you can boot up your internet enabled contact lens, surf through “cyberspace” like Lawnmower Man, and download an experience or body of knowledge from iTunes (cause Apple would be ALL over this) directly into your brain. Sounds great right? Except, until we learn how to speak brain, somebody will have to manually learn that knowledge and actually have that experience that you’re downloading a copy of.
Picture an entirely new class of workers whose job it is to learn subjects and have experiences so that their brain activity can be recorded and sold to millions of other people. At the high end of this market smart middle class kids get educations at Ivy League schools, their tuition subsidized by a company that records their learning and sells it off to the children of upper class bankers, doctors, and lawyers. The mass market equivalent would involve thousands of different vocational knowledge bases like car repair, computer programming, plumbing and heating, etc (“Do you want to make more money? SURE, we all do!” – Sally Struthers every day of my entire childhood). Not to mention mental vacations, songs, books. To drive down costs for the mass market all of the learning and experiencing would be done by those willing to work for the lowest wages, creating a new kind of exploitation where the first world pays the third world to live the boring or difficult part of their lives for them.
And at the bottom end of the market, on the fringes of legality and cultural acceptance, a seedy world of lurid sex and weird fetishes. A black market would exist for those looking to experience pain, murder, rape, and probably even death. Legislating and regulating the creation and sale of this content would be a nightmare, piracy would be rampant, governments would overreact and under-react at all the wrong times. Oppressive regimes would attempt mind-control, religions would find a new method with which to spread the gospel (could you download faith?).
Shitty 90's movie always get the future right...even if they're usually off by a decade or three.
And worst of all, or best of all, millions of people would be living other people’s lives…knowing other people’s thoughts, feeling other people’s emotions, and having other people’s dreams. The borders between self and other would blur, identity as we know it would be lost. Hive mind all up in this bitch.
Is this good or bad? An inevitability or a fantasy? Whenever I have heard older generations speak of new technologies with ignorance and fear I always thought that they were being foolish and I have never sympathized. But if this technology comes to pass then perhaps I will be the Luddite, perhaps I will understand what it feels like to be obsolete.