"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Virtual Reality–Brain and Computer Can Now Communicate

The BBC today reported a remarkable discovery:

Researchers have demonstrated a striking method to reconstruct words, based on the brain waves of patients thinking of those words.The technique reported relies on gathering electrical signals directly from patients' brains.Based on signals from listening patients, a computer model was used to reconstruct the sounds of words that patients were thinking of.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16811042

A mind-computer link has finally been established, and there is no limit to where that relationship will lead.  Although the short-term prospects are to enable comatose and other ‘locked-in’ patients to communicate, there is no doubt that that this discovery will quickly and surely evolve into a fully-linked mind-computer network.  Once the electronic code to our thoughts has been deciphered, we will, through the mediation of the computer, be able to communicate with any other individual.  As importantly we will have access to the world’s electronically-recorded information.  Combining the two, we will be able to create our own completely virtual worlds and live in them with whomever we choose, whenever we choose, and wherever we like. 

In 1973 I wrote a novel called Amerikua which was about virtual reality.  It was a bad novel.  It was overloaded, undeveloped, character-less, with no sense of drama, feeling, or plot.  It was, nevertheless, a work that correctly anticipated the future.

The book explored ideas that had taken root in my many years living in India where I was taken with the idea that higher states of consciousness – or at least different states of consciousness – were possible and apparently achieved by sadhus. This belief in accession to a higher, more spiritual world was accepted and aspired to by most Indians. The concept that individuals might be able to leave one kind of reality and join another, however, was beyond the reach of most Westerners.  We had neither the tradition, the patience, the discipline, or even the desire to begin this spiritual journey – at least not in the Hindu way.  

After India I lived in Mexico and Guatemala and visited the ruins of Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations near the border.  These pre-Columbian civilizations were animist with a powerful relationship with the forces and elements of nature:

Zapotec religion was animistic. Although not monotheists, "they did recognize a supreme being who was without beginning or end, who created everything but was not himself created,but he was so infinite and incorporeal that no images were ever made of him. This supreme being had, in turn, created a series of powerful supernatural forces including lightning, sun, earthquake, fire, and clouds which interacted with the Zapotecs. (Wikipedia)

Standing near Monte Alban, looking out over the valley to the mountains beyond, I visualized a primitive, yet spiritually sophisticated life, intimidated by unexplained forces of nature – wild storms, thunder and lightning.  A life overpowered by spiritual forces not simply residing in but being mountains, immovable, dark, threatening.  Zapotecs must have been, startled and amazed by the sun and the sky, and they offered human sacrifices to appease the physical and supremely powerful forces around them.  The religions of the West, by comparison, where power and sacrifice were reduced to consecration and symbolism, were tepid, dilute, and passionless.  The awe of the Middle Ages where this ritual sacrifice was performed in vast, towering, echoing cathedrals, the closest thing to a sense of being in the physical presence of spiritual forces, was long gone.

Finally in this short but important period, I visited Austin, Texas, and there I saw what is common in every city now – mega-houses designed with the owners’ vision of reality; Greek Revival, Tudor, Mediterranean, Georgian mansions that had been constructed with no sense of place, environment, or history.  They were pure fantasy.  I had the sense then – a sense which has only increased and been consolidated in the ensuring years – that Americans are not satisfied with reality.  The what is does not excite us; the what could be does. Out of the scrub brush of the Texas bush came icons of Elizabeth I, the grand Spanish colonial empire, and visions of antiquity.   

Out of these three experiences – in India, pre-Columbian Mexico, and Austin, Texas – came my idea of a very unique American virtual reality; one which was as unfettered, free, and liberated as that of an Indian sadhu; one that was as frighteningly powerful as a Zapotec sacrifice; and one which was typically American in its eagerness for new experiences, to create and fashion reality according to individual whim.   At the time, at the infancy of the computer age, there were only glimmerings of the possibility of the new technology, the first insights into artificial intelligence, and only a few glancing references to how man and machine would interact.  But the suggestions that the language of the mind and that of the computer would at some point become one were there, if only few and speculative.  We would some day be able to transmit our thoughts to the computer, and it would talk back.  That day has come.

There is no doubt that we prefer a virtual world.  We travel in virtual worlds every day.  Reality is being disassembled.  Computer games, for example, are becoming so sophisticated that it is hard to tell if they have been computer-generated or are recordings of the real world.  Movies are now out in 3-D, and it will not be long before the experience moves from a flat screen and becomes truly three-dimensional and fully interactive.  We will be part of a projected, fantasy world in our living rooms.  Teleconferencing is common today, but soon there will be virtual conferencing where our avatars, holographic images of ourselves, programmed with sophisticated social and intellectual software, will take our places.  There will be fewer and fewer reasons to travel when software programs become so sophisticated that the three-dimensional virtual experienced will be better than the real one. 

An essential point is that once a virtual reality becomes equal to or better than the actual reality, a Rubicon will have been crossed.  No going back.  Why would you? If the virtual world is no different from the real one, but it is enhanced, more beautiful, more exciting, more fulfilling…why would you ever choose the real? 

An equally important point, and the key to progressing from our currently embryonic virtual reality to a more mature and complete one, is that we don’t care about reality.  Despite the laggards who insist that the smell of a real pine forest, high up in the Rockies can never be replaced, it can – easily.  Virtual scents are a reality, and the creation of a supra-real mountain experience no different from the ‘real thing’ is only decades away.

The study on which the BBC report is based is historic.  Its title is appropriately modest, academic, and factual; but the implications are revolutionary.

Using the electrocorticographic speech network to control a brain–computer interface in humans

Eric C Leuthardt et al 2011

Journal of Neural Engineering Volume 8 Number 3

The discovery is like that of Watson and Crick and DNA.  When the news broke in 1953, there was certainly no way to know that the discovery would revolutionize the very nature of human life.  Thanks to the discovery of DNA, genetic recognition and modification are realities.  We can be screened for all kinds of genetic mutations which increase our risk from disease.  Our ancestry can be confirmed.  The genetic modification of plants and animals make them more productive and more resistant to disease.  Eventually – and it is a question of when, not if – human beings will be genetically modified.  Human nature itself will be changed. We will be able to create our own fantasy vision of our offspring, just as the old residents of Austin designed their fantasy houses.

Eventually, thanks to this new brain-computer interface, we will be able to communicate freely with the computer – not only words, but images, thoughts, and feelings.  We are only at the very tip of the deciphering of the electronic codes for cognition and feeling; and once they are known, the range, depth, and intensity of the communication to others via the computer will be limitless.

In the almost 40 years since I wrote the book, I have heard every possible argument against this virtual world.  “I don’t care”, was the most common, “I will always prefer the real world”.  My follow-up question, “But if you can’t tell the difference”, was rejected out of hand.  There was something sacrosanct about real dirt, real birds, and the real taste of a Camembert. 

Philosophers have debated the nature of reality for centuries, asking the fundamental question posed here – what is reality?  Are we real, or living in an imagined world? Or do we create an imagined world, as Bishop Berkeley argued in the 17th Century:

George Berkeley (12 March 1685 – 14 January 1753), also known as Bishop Berkeley (Bishop of Cloyne), was an Anglo-Irish philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called "immaterialism" (later referred to as "subjective idealism" by others). This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers, and as a result cannot exist without being perceived. Thus, as Berkeley famously put it, for physical objects "esse est percipi" ("to be is to be perceived"). Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism. (Wikipedia)

Imagining a virtual world, then, is not necessarily far-fetched, nor somehow perverse.  In a sense, the vision I have presented here is no different from that of Berkeley, the only difference being that we are not imagining chairs and tables, but a much more complex world.

There is an inevitability about both the DNA and brain-computer interface revolutions.  There will always be those who feel that such human tampering with the laws of God is wrong; or those who are simply attached to their own beliefs in substance, material, and reality; but the train has left the station, and it will eventually and ultimately arrive in a world which will be unrecognizable from this one.

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