October 04, 2004

Man-machine Interface 

Or better, rat-machine interface... But the former title is more cool - and you'll understand why.

Researchers at DARPA developed search rats to help find people trapped in collapsed buildings and similar situations. This is good to save lives, but I'm more interested in another aspect.

These researchers first identified the neurosignals generated by rats in response to a pleasant scent, then built neuro-implants to pick up these signals and are developing a software to analyze them and activate a radio transmitter when the trained rat finds the scent it's looking for (usually human scent, but it can be almost anything).

This is a form of direct brain-machine interface, albeit primitive and uni-directional.
It can only pick signals up from a brain, and not send any back, but already being able to implant electrodes in the brain of a normally-living animal, and having a software to interpret the signals seems a big step forward to me.

The future of man-machine interactions will be like what is depicted in the gorgeous anime Ghost in the Shell, where the dividing line between man and machine has been blurred, and cyborgs are the norm. If the humans will be willing to mix with machines, that is. But I think the majority of humans will.

The possibilities arising from such an integration are almost limitless. Hardened cyborgs can survive in environments deadly for any human, and might have the extra-long life needed for long distance space travel. Or a whole human personality (a soul?) might be stored in a spaceship's computer, and downloaded in a biomechanical body, when the ships reaches its destination. Or transferred in another body, allowing a sort of eternal life.
Included in the package, a new whole set of new and deep ethical and moral challenges, too. What we think as life and death will probably be redefined.

This is the best part, for me, of the rationalist, capitalist society: there is no historical determinism, no pre-defined endpoint. The possibilities for evolution are only limited by the laws of nature, in principle.
But nothing comes for free, and the price of this is that ethical systems need a constant reassessment to keep pace with scientific and technological evolution. It's a world of shifting certainties and moving borders.

In contrast, Marxism and Islamism are both deterministic. The former regards real socialism as the highest point of evolution in human societies, beyond which there is nothing. It does not deny technical and scientific evolution, but it's quite straightforward that in a static society, science will not have many incentives to advance.

Islamism has an even narrower horizon: the whole world, all that has ever been and will ever be is contained in the Quran and a few other holy books. Humans can do nothing else than spend their lives following Allah's will. And for the preachers of the cult, Allah's will is not to prosper and have fun, to improve knowledge and technology.


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