When I saw the Clint Eastwood movie Firefox in 1982, the thing that most stuck in my mind was that it depicted Soviet society in an unflattering light. I had never seen this in a Hollywood movie before. What had gone wrong? Hadn’t the director got the memo from the studio bosses? Shouldn’t he be blacklisted or something?
Just as we knew back then that in Hollywood’s world every Catholic priest would be a kindly figure with absolutely no eye for a nicely rounded bottom, who never voiced any of the controversial bits of Catholic dogma, but could be counted on to say to a wayward soul, about two-thirds of the way through the story, “I know there is some good in you,” so we knew that the Soviet Union always had to be shown as industrious, peace-loving, and quaintly mysterious, or at worst suspicious and irritable, like a temperamental bear which had been grievously mistreated but would now surely respond gratefully to patience and kindness.
Any trouble with the Russians was due to sinister forces dedicated to provoking misunderstanding—usually right-wing Americans, whose minds were too warped to understand that the USSR was essentially all about peace and love, but occasionally the culprits were international criminals—think of all the times in the Bond movies when SPECTRE was revealed to be so much more evil than SMERSH, and never more evil than when it was sowing mistrust between East and West.
Truth be told, my attention had been caught by a very minor detail of the movie itself. The glimpse into Soviet society was a small part of the film and only occupied a few minutes of screen time. Firefox is an adventure story in which Clint’s character (a traumatized former fighter pilot who’s fluent in Russian) steals the only existing model of an advanced jet fighter from its Russian base and flies it out of the Soviet Union! But, oh no, scratch that, it’s not the only model after all! There turns out to be another prototype, so the top Russian military test pilot uses this second aircraft to come after Clint, and following a supersonic chase there’s a supersonic dogfight, in which Clint is blown to pieces. . . . No, of course not, just making sure you’re awake.
To me at the time, the second most striking thing about the movie was that the jet fighters’ weapon systems were thought-controlled. And there’s that crucial point in the dogfight where Clint has to remind himself to think in Russian before he can properly fire a missile at his antagonist.
Thought-controlled weapons? Was this yet another of Hollywood’s tall tales? Or was it something that could ever become reality? And how would that work, exactly? I thought about this at the time, without knowing much about the brain. After all, you move your arm by thinking, don’t you? (Ha! We can imagine that muddlehead Wittgenstein going on for several pages about this. “I do not move my arm by thinking, . . . I just move my arm.” Well, danke schön, Lu, that’s very deep.)
Thirty-two years on, I know a little bit more about the brain, and a little bit more about brain-related technology, and I know that it’s now safe to assume the US military does have thought-controlled weapons if it wants them. We do have brain-computer interfacing (BCI), so that, for instance, someone with a wired-up brain can move a cursor on a computer screen (just by thinking, so to speak) or steer his wheelchair, just by thinking, and we have thought-controlled prosthetics, movable just by thought alone, and artificial thought control of real limbs, so that people with completely paralyzed bodies can move their limbs, just by thinking (Clear out, Ludwig. You’re too much underfoot. You too, Gilbert. Out.)
So, thought-controlled appliances, including weapons, are now just a yawn. More exciting is the prospect of transmitting thoughts from one brain to another by linking up the brains, without any external messaging.
In August 2013 it was announced that, in an experiment conducted at the University of Washington by Rajesh Rao, one person, his brain linked to another person’s, was able, by thinking about moving his finger (but not actually moving it) to make the other person’s finger move. Essentially the same thing had been done earlier with the brains of two rats, and then with the brain of a human and the brain of a rat. In Rao’s experiment, the sender was playing a videogame; the receiver’s moving finger fired a rocket in the game, though only the sender and not the receiver could see the game on a screen.
I don’t know if Rao’s experiment was reported in the UK press, and if so, how. But over here, and online, all the reports I saw described it as a wholly unprecedented breakthrough and failed to mention that four years earlier something apparently more radical had been achieved at the University of Southampton. The Southampton team led by Christopher James transmitted a thought from one person’s brain to another. Or at least, that’s one way of describing it. Though the recipient was not aware of the ‘thought’, the information could be retrieved electronically from his brain.
To get one brain, by having a thought about something, to cause a motor response in another brain, ought to be a lot easier than getting one brain, by having a thought about something, to cause a thought about the same thing to arise in another brain. However, the Southampton brain-to-brain transmittal was done by using a binary code: the sender imagined moving his left arm for zero and his right arm for one. It was simply a matter of transmitting which of two known options had been chosen. As a case of thought transmission this is kind of like cheating. A more advanced variant is having someone look at some alphabetical letters in succession, and simply sending a signal when the ‘right’ one has been hit upon, the accumulation of such letters adding up to the desired message. This is a neat trick, but something far more momentous is now being developed and will soon be marketed. Specific thoughts, sensations, and emotions will be conveyed from one brain to another by electronic transmission.
Imagine a football team or a military patrol in which each member of the team is simultaneously aware of the experiences of each of the other members, just as instantly as he’s aware of events affecting the various parts of his own body. How awesome is that? Even more impressively, imagine that all the world’s theoretical physicists working on superstring theory are connected by equipment attached to their skulls, so that whenever one of them has a promising idea, this idea is immediately picked up by all the others. This triggers a new thought in the mind of one of the others, which is also picked up by all of them, and so on.
Dr James’s and Dr Rao’s experiments were done without penetrating the skull. Electrodes were attached to the outside of the skulls of sender and receiver. The sender’s brain activity was picked up by EEG (electro-encephalography) and what was picked up was then transmitted to the receiver’s brain by TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation). So these are all things attached to the outside of the skull which receive and send impulses from and into the skull. To achieve more precise and detailed transmission of thoughts and feelings, we have to physically get inside the skull, though we’re helped by the fact that thoughts occur mostly at or near the brain’s surface.
Every time I think of the currently favored way to accomplish this, it strikes me as so clunky it’s bound to be superseded before the whole show gets on the road, but so far it hasn’t been. The plan is, first, to genetically modify all of a person’s brain cells (neurons) to make them sensitive to light. This is feasible and has been done with animals—the research area is called optogenetics. Then, we insert a whole lot of nanowires—really very thin tubes—into the person’s body, with many different wires going through blood vessels into many different regions (groups of neurons) in the brain. There’s plenty of room; the wires are very thin. In this way, it’s possible to send light signals to quite specific areas in the brain, associated with particular kinds of thoughts. With this set-up, it will be possible for A to think of something, and as a direct result, almost immediately, B will think of that same thing. The brains of both A and B are connected to computers, and these two computers will communicate by telephone. This is called brain-brain interfacing (BBI). BBI is an application and extension of BCI and will soon be as much talked about as smart phones were ten years ago.
You may think that people will be reluctant to have every cell of their brains genetically modified, and then have thousands of yards of nanowires introduced into their bodies, reaching into every part of their brains. However, the initial impetus for widespread application of BCI is to improve people’s lives by correcting severe disorders, especially paralysis. The nanowires will also be useful for medical diagnosis. Once the basic apparatus is in place, it will be a platform for further enhancements, such as direct brain connection to the Internet.
Furthermore, other types of inside-the-skull apparatus for different enhancements are available, one of the simplest being cochlear implants. Cochlear implants give incurably deaf people the ability to hear again. It takes practice and hard work for the patient to hear with the implants, which operate according to a computerized system entirely different from natural hearing, but they do usually learn to hear quite well, and these implants are already routine. They have nothing to do with thinking as a brain process, but they do help to prepare people for the assumption that it’s okay to have your head wired.
Many other enhancements are feasible; it would be child’s play to give someone x-ray vision (though most likely by microwaves rather than x-rays), with all the necessary equipment inside their skull. As people get more used to having their skulls wired in various ways, one more way will not seem too much of a leap. Pretty soon, it will make possible brain connectivity to videogames, and many of the millions of gaming fanatics will not want to be left out. I give it eighteen years before the first court case (probably rape) in which a defendant is charged with coercively influencing an alleged victim by using BBI, and twenty-five years before the first case involving stealing information by hacking into someone’s brain.
Since the wave of BBI is about to hit us, we can anticipate some of the misconceptions which will abound. Already, the two participants in Rao’s experiment (Rao himself and a guy called Andrea Stocco) have been quoted as referring to it as a “Vulcan Mind Meld.” All joking aside, let’s try to keep misunderstandings to a minimum by remembering the following essential points:
1. Inevitably, BBI is described as ‘direct brain-to-brain communication’. (In the trade it’s called B2B and unfortunately this label looks as if it will stick, despite the fact that B2B already has other established usages, most notably, in the world of marketing, ‘business to business’.) But this description can easily be misleading.
All communication between humans is brain-to-brain. When you read the words “If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,” William Shakespeare’s brain (or the brain of whoever really wrote it) has communicated with your brain. And as for communication being direct, with BBI there’s a lot of apparatus inside and outside the skulls of the communicating parties, and this apparatus communicates through computers, connected by a telephone system (usually the Internet). This is much less direct than just talking and listening! But it seems more direct because the communicator and the receiver only have to think. So at most we may say that it feels direct—it’s subjectively direct.
2. You can be certain that the media will love to call BBI ‘telepathy’, but there is not and never can be any such thing as telepathy. In BBI, a thought in one person’s mind causes (by a complicated technological pathway) a thought with similar content in another person’s mind. This has many of the properties of communication by speech or writing, and in fact to achieve the communication in any precise way, words will normally have to be among the material communicated.
3. The communication will not be guaranteed accurate. I think something and this causes you to think something similar, and because of this subjective immediacy, it may encourage the mistake of thinking that we can trust this communication to be more honest or accurate than, say, reading a letter. But that’s all wrong. Misinterpretation (seeming to ‘receive’ a thought which is not what the sender was thinking at all) will be commonplace. It may even turn out that the conscious act of formulating something in a letter causes us to take certain pains to make the message more accurate than it could ever be in a more spontaneous thought-to-thought process. Honesty does not come naturally; it takes a special effort, as I think David McDonagh was the first to point out. Tricks of deception will no doubt require different skills in BBI than ordinary speech, but deception, intentional and unintentional, will keep cropping up.
The third thing that struck me about Firefox was the irritating martial music of the soundtrack. Was the composer hired by the studio to punish the director and scriptwriter for their thoughtcrime of anti-communism? Hmm, I wonder . . .